As a schoolboy in the Kandyan hills, I read with avid interest, the Belgian explorer Armand Denise’s book of his exploits in different parts of the world. Little did I dream that not only would I visit some of the places he mentioned but that, like him, I would have a beautiful blonde wife who [...]


The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Leopard in her lap at Browns Beach Hotel

Veteran hotelier Prasanna Jayewardene looks back on a very special adoptee

As a schoolboy in the Kandyan hills, I read with avid interest, the Belgian explorer Armand Denise’s book of his exploits in different parts of the world. Little did I dream that not only would I visit some of the places he mentioned but that, like him, I would have a beautiful blonde wife who would have a leopard in her lap. His wife Michela describes her time in Kenya in the book titled ‘Leopard in my lap’.

My Swedish wife Carin stepped into Sri Lanka straight from Paris after our marriage in Sweden. The Sri Lanka of 1970, with a socialist government and an insurgency yet to come, was a tremendous contrast. Being in our early twenties it was, to both of us, a great adventure.

Baba the leopard and Gondol the St. Bernard in the Browns Beach Hotel garden in 1973

Browns Beach Hotel became our home after a few years. The new phase of Western charter tourism was in full stride. The framework of the Browns Group under the chairmanship of its first Sri Lankan Chairman, former Minister of Justice Edmund J. Cooray, being arguably the largest diversified conglomerate of the time, gave us the space to start a menagerie which earned the title of ‘mini zoo’ in the hotel premises.

Baba the leopard came to us by accident and through a little compassion. We were living in the hotel and already had a few animals. One day, a man who wished to sell me a leopard was brought to me. Back in the ’70s, the law regarding having wildlife as pets was not strictly enforced but I refused to consider the offer. A few days later the badly cured skin of a leopard was brought to the hotel shop for sale. By chance I learned of this and that it was the same man who was attempting to sell the pelt. I spoke to him only to discover to my horror that he had shot a leopardess somewhere near Puttalam and had offered me her cub for sale. A sibling had since died- due to neglect I presumed.

For Rs. 50 I bought the cub, which was not only close to death but hardly recognisable as a big cat. Its filthy tick and flea-ridden fur was lustreless, its large nose and gleaming eyes the only identifying marks to my rather untrained eye that this was indeed a leopard cub.
I gingerly carried this unsavoury-looking bundle to my apartment and dumped it with my wife Carin. I, as usual, had perceived work to do. Fortunately she not only is a confirmed cat lover but she had, in her few years in Sri Lanka, got to know of some wild animals first hand and how to care for them.

A slightly more presentable tiny presence, which was able to comfortably sit in the palm of my hand, greeted me on my return from my office at the other end of the hotel after a few hours. Our children, Adrian and Danielle, being not yet born, Carin had the time to consider bringing up this waif who was soon named Baba. Our living in the hotel allowed Carin the time to devote to bringing him around with a great deal of love and care.

I was fortunate to be working as General Manager for a Chairman who seemed to have infinite patience with my vagaries, or how can one have a mini zoo with porcupine, monkeys, deer, sambur, peafowl, herons, storks, teal and also a crocodile and a python? Now a leopard. All this in a tourist hotel by the sea, with limited garden space, situated in a town. All without prior permission or notice. My

Prasanna Jayewardene and wife Carin back in the ‘70s

only excuse was youth, I was still in my mid-twenties.

Gondol, the Saint Bernard, gifted to us by a friend Tony Van Starrex, had a wonderful disposition and was willing to share the space of our apartment with this bundle of misery who would in time grow into a magnificent leopard. Gondol also accommodated a baby otter who incidentally was taught to swim by surrogate mother Carin.

Baba soon came into his own. He had the run of our little apartment and its verandahs and the garden. He slept in our bed, he lodged in our chairs, he eyed and stalked the hotel guests, he slurped milk from a bottle and chewed the teat, he tore our cushions to shreds and left angry scratch marks on Carin’s arms and legs in play, he frolicked with Gondol and charmed everyone who laid eyes on him. We were enchanted.

As he grew and became both graceful and very beautiful, Lyn de Alwis, the iconic wildlife man of Sri Lanka, who had known my family from the time he was first a member of the Cactus Society, with Sam Ellapatha Dissawe, Senator Sam P.C. Fernando, Clifford Ratwatte, Dr W.R.C. Paul, Danapala Weerasekera among many others in the 1950’s, suggested I get permits for all the animals. The legal aspects at least were covered.

Carin, the central figure in this adoption, also consulted my father E.D.W. who had not only kept and bred a variety of animals but who had actual experience in leopard rearing like his father Felix before him. My father had also kept all four of the cat family found in the wild and had in fact bred fishing cats.

Baba flourished. He was loved, pampered and cherished. Young Baba was taken with us when we travelled within the country when possible. He was of course a sensation. When President William Gopollawa visited the hotel he was gracious enough to visit Baba too.

Time moves on and practicality comes to the fore. The life Carin had saved now needed to be sustained as best as possible. This magnificent specimen of a leopard, loving as he was, could not continue to share our bed, leave alone apartment and hotel grounds in adulthood. Very sadly after much soul searching, Baba was handed over to the tender care of Lyn de Alwis, then Director of the National Zoological Gardens to live out the rest of his life with his own kind. Of the many animals Carin was surrogate mother to, Baba probably has a very special place.

Browns Beach Hotel which gave my family and so many others so much, gave a leopard cub an opportunity of life. We got a lifetime of memories.

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