The unfazed leopard and the two-legged rude species

Thursday, January 14, 2010, Yala: Naturalist Guide Sam Caseer and I were rotating between the jeeps and it was my turn to be with David Gerard and his son Jock and his friend Wills. As David was becoming interested in birds I began to call off the names from left to right in an ephemeral freshwater pool on the Buttuwa Plains. Behind us was Akasa Chaitya and Elephant Rock.

The waterbirds were a stone's throw away from us. The Painted Stork was looking gorgeous in pink. Yala National Park was fresh and green. The sun was climbing high but veiled by a thin cloud, so the light was not harsh. The diversity of birds, the closeness of them and the fresh foliage in the park all combined to create a certain spirit of the place. Drinking all of this in through the optical quality of a Swarowski binoculars, David was overwhelmed.

There was time to take in the birds as we had spent over an hour at a leopard sighting. We had come across a group of jeeps that were at Boraluwala on the main road. I had been told about a leopard here. I found what I would guess would be a male probably between 12 to 15 months old. The eyes still looked disproportionately large. It was atop a rock that was about 30 feet away. It was remarkably relaxed and dozed off despite several jeeps that jostled for a good viewing position.

The sighting demonstrated one of my arguments that people are more concerned by the presence of other jeeps than the leopards themselves, provided the people did not engage in any intimidating or threatening behaviour. Lal who was at the wheel pulled up with three jeeps between us and the leopard. We manoeuvered into a gap and I slung my Canon 600mm f4 on the roof and began to take photographs. Meanwhile the leopard was tolerant of all the jostling that was taking place closer to it. I was quite surprised when a tracker asked me to take my lens inside the jeep. I complied because I realised he was trying to pre-empt people in the other jeeps clambering to the roof to take a look. I was not annoyed about the tracker's request but what happened later did annoy me.

After a while most of the jeeps dispersed and I was left shooting through a parked jeep. Another jeep pulled in to the gap completely blocking our view in a show of bad manners. As the two tourists in it were using small compact cameras we waited patiently expecting them to leave in a few minutes. Half an hour later, with no pressure from us they packed away their cameras.

The first jeep that was closest to the leopard pulled away and we took its place only to receive a sarcastic question from the jeep that had blocked us whether we now had a good view. We politely said yes, but David and I both exchanged some strong words about the visitor under our breath.The leopard seemed unaffected by the bad manners of visitors and was intermittently dozing off. Another jeep arrived and Lal pulled out to make room and just in time too as the leopard got up from the rock on which the sun was now falling and walked off.

Having had our fill of leopard we drove around pausing here and there to take in the views and bird life at a relaxed pace. Heading back along the main road near Patanangala we came across a jeep watching another leopard cub at around 60 feet away perched on the crotch of a low branching Palu tree. It did not stay long, I suspect it was disturbed by voices carrying across.

I asked Lal to position the jeep on the main road to allow me to take a tripod mounted shot along the axis of the main road which was partially obscured by two jeeps that were parked ahead of us. Just as I had anticipated the cub walked across a grassy meadow and came to the edge of the road and paused to look at the jeep. "Click" I had it exactly where I had anticipated and I could not help feeling smug with myself. It crossed briskly and was gone.

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is CEO of Jetwing Eco Holidays. These are lightly edited journal notes. Gehan is on, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.

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