ENCOUNTER WITH LEOPARDS: LIKE WATCHING A WILDLIFE FILM
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2009). Encounter with leopards: Like watching a wildlife film. The Sunday Times Plus. Sunday October 11, 2009. Features. Page 3.
In July the British High Commission relaxed the travel advisory to Yala. This marked an important turning point for wildlife travel tour operators such as Jetwing Eco Holidays for whom Yala is one of the most important sites for their business. During the third week of July I was in Yala with the British High Commissioner Dr Peter Hayes and his wife Kirsty and their children. During the last week end of September I returned with Tom Owen-Edmunds and Libby Southwell.
It was Libby’s first ever visit to Yala and the Saturday turned out to be such a fantastic day. Our first half an hour into the park and the last half an hour into the park produced two amazing and memorable leopard sightings. Both leopards sightings were close, and provided great viewing under atmospheric conditions. I suspect both were the Kohombagaswala cubs.
The first sighting was on the Uraniya Road, just before Palugaswala No 1. We had left the Yala Village hotel and proceeded leisurely having first looked at some birds and Jackals. In our first half an hour we came across a cluster of jeeps that were looking at a young male seated on a low rock. We pulled and had had great views but through a thicket of Weera trees. Some vehicles had a totally clear view from 20 meters away. We thought our view was quite atmospheric. After five minutes or so the leopard stretched and moved away. We then staked out a buffalo carcass at Palugaswala No 2 which had been visited by a leopard last morning and evening. A cluster of jeeps stayed close to the carcass. We parked about 20m away where we had a line of sight to the carcass, but could chat in low voices without disturbing anyone. We bird watched and chatted, for an hour and then drove off, pausing on and off to look at birds and other mammals which included a very small tusker which was on its own.
We stopped at the Tsunami memorial at Patanangala where a male House Sparrow attacked its reflection in the mirror. Tom who is fairly keen birdwatcher ticked off the birds he was seeing in a copy of John Harrrison’s Field Guide to the Birds of Sri lanka. We examined House Swifts, Crested Tree-swifts, Barn Swallows and Ceylon Swallows which hawked overhead. Near the round wala on the Meda Para we came across a female Barred Button-quail which was foraging in the dry leaf litter. Its technique was to rotate in the leaves as if was trying to make a circular depression to create nest. We watched it for at least fifteen minutes. The role of the sexes are reversed in this bird and the female was strongly marked.
We exited the park around 12 noon and headed to the Palatupana Salt Pans. There was a good mix of waders including a single Ruff. Species present included Golden, Grey and Lesser Sand Plover, Common, Green, Marsh and Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Redshank, Black-winged Stilt, Great Thick-knee, etc.
The lake in front of the Yalla Village hotel produced a single Greenshank as well as Spoonbill, Painted Stork, Little Egret, Gull-billed Tern, Little Stint, Common Sandpiper, Lesser Sand Plover, etc.
The evening game drive got off to a tremendous start when five Jackals visited the lake near the ticket office. We photographed them here and then in the park had a single Ruddy Mongoose. Mammals seen so far included Hanuman Langur, Spotted Deer, Elephant, Black-naped Hare, Common Palm-civet, Palm Squirrell, Jackal, Wild Pig and Leopard.
At Buttuwa Wewa crocodiles were concentrated into a small area. We could see at least 50 crocodiles. Some were enormous. There were a dozen large crocodiles basking next to a Buffalo in the mud. Two endangered Lesser Adjutant were in the distance. 2 Black-crowned Night-herons were also out in the open. This is unusual for a bird which is nocturnal.
We took the road running past Pimburagala which comes from the far side of Walmal Kema. This is a very graphic landscape which sheets of rock bordered by gaunt, leafless thorn scrub. The park was very dry and almost all of the water bodies were totally dry. The evening light was wonderful. At Wal Mal Kema, the effect of the evening light on the pink hued rock was breathtaking. It was quiet and we were the only jeep and we settled into take it all in. Into this wonderful light walked a Peacock, which shimmered and dazzled in the warm but soft light.
Lal the driver and Ruwan the tracker felt that Kohombogaswala may attract one of leopards from the two cubs and the mother which frequent the area. These are the leopards I had seen in July when I had visited with the British High Commissioner and his family. Driving into the park I had explained to Tom and Libby, that every year, Yala has one or two sets of cubs which perform for the cameras. This summer, it was the turn of the Kohombogaswala cubs. In the afternoon, we had watched a Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) water bowser fill the water hole with water. Many of the water holes have small cemented ponds to help the animals get through the drought. It is very nice to see the DWLC continuing with interventionist conservation management. The animal populations would otherwise crash.
Just as we arrived, one of the eight vehicles parked there beckoned us. We joined them just as the female cub walked in for a drink. I started to shoot and the leopard walked to the right and began to drink water. It then walked into the golden light and out of view. We drove to Palugaswala No 2 where Namal Kamalgoda and Gehan Rajapkase were staking out a buffalo carcass. We heard alarms calls which suggested an approaching leopard. We drove off towards Karawgaswala and heard that the male cub had approached No 2 soon after we left.
At the first waterhole on Meda Para I noticed what looked like a Sociable Glider (Tramea limbata). But I cannot be sure. On both days we saw several Globe Skimmers (Pantala flavescens) which are now believed to undertake the longest migration by an insect. This comes of the work of Dr Charles Anderson who also led me to the Blue Whale story in Sri Lanka.
After dinner we drove off towards Kirinda. We had several Black-naped Hare and nothing else. An Indian Nightjar was on the lake embankment near the hotel. The bull elephant was once again foraging outside my room, no 111, as I went in around 10.00 pm.
We took drinks on the top deck of the Yala Village Hotel and indulged in a spot of astronomy. We looked at the Mikly Way and at Jupiter. The latter’s planetary disc was clear through binoculars.
The Saturday had been a phenomenal day with beautiful birds, many mammals, lovely landscapes and two fantastic sightings of leopard. The Sunday, was another incredible day in the park which left Libby and Tom commenting that it was on par with an African safari. In fact the whole morning felt like we were on live in a program being aired on Nat Geo or Animal Planet. We drove past Palugaswala No 1 to Palugaswala No 2. Predictably the serious photographers were already there. Namal Kamalgoda and Gehan Rajapakse were already in the best position with five other safari vehicles taking slots behind them. We pulled over parallel to Gehan and Namal and I extended my tripod head to mount the 600mm f4 lens to shoot over the front of their vehicle. A pack of six jackals were tearing at the carcass. They were nervous and fed quickly. At any given time one would bite off a piece and rip it out. Others were clambering atop the carcass. Others just fed in a hurried manner.
Some of the jackals looked like they were young from the last litter to be raised. Once or twice a Spotted Deer alarm call rang out. A more strident call rang out later followed by a distant Sambar bellowing. A leopard was clearly on its way. The nervous jackals dispersed. We waited and waited, but no leopard arrived. A mobile phone call came that the leopard was at Palugaswala No 1 and the rest of the vehicles sped away. We decided to wait in case the other of the Kohombgaswala pair came over. The pack of jackals came trotting by again and ran past the carcass and hurried across the road. Reluctantly we decided to join the pursuit for the leopard at No 1 and drove the long loop on the one way circuit to Palugaswala No 1. One of the cubs (nearly sub-adult now) had arrived and had apparently stalking the nearly dead buffalo which was at the hole. I suspect it was more the case it was hoping to feed off the dead buffalo but was being very wary of the one that was alive.
The cub had retired to a spot of shade on the embankment and Libby spotted it for us. We decided to wait and take it all in. It was like watching a wildlife film. A pair of Large-billed Crows (Jungle Crows) began to peck at the carcass. One repeatedly stabbed the eye and pulled out bits of eye and meat. The resident pair of Indian Thick-knees were clearly guarding a feeding territory and showed occasional aggression to the other birds. A Ruddy Mongoose which strayed too close to them elicited a wing stretch display. The Ruddy Mongoose backed off. Surprisingly the one or more Ruddy Mongooses which visited did not scavenge on the buffalo. One Indian Thick-knee pulled out a piece of meat and I photographed this. This surprised me as up to then I had only seen them feeding on insects near the carcass. A sounder of wild pig came in and began to rip out flesh. There were five of them. The largest was a female. I suspect they all were females.
At least two hundred Spotted Deer came in groups of around 40 each. The first group was very nervous and initially drank from muddy edges at the back. The second group drank from the green water which had at least six medium sized crocodiles in it. The herds of deer had several males. The last group we saw had a few very large males. Some of the deer were in velvet. I suppose it makes sense for the deer to grow their antlers and build a harem now. The arrival of young will then be after the North-east Monsoon rains which will result in lush grasslands and ample water. Two deer clashed and one fled. To my amazement the deer which ran away had full antlers whilst the victor had none. They stood up on their hind legs when fighting.
Hanuman Langurs were standing sentinel and one barked in alarm when the leopard changed position. The Spotted Deer also responded. I was able to photograph the Spotted Deer close to the Hanuman langurs. I had wanted to take this image for some time to show the association between Hanman Langurs and the Spotted Deer. Over an hour elapsed before the Hanuman Langurs approached the water to drink. By then it was almost 10.30 am and we had spent most of the time since 7.30 am at this water hole.
A beautiful male Ring-necked Parakeet on a lichen encrusted dead tree was compositionally outstanding. We had Brahminy Kite, White-bellied Sea-eagle, Grey Heron, Painted Stork, Black-winged Stilt, etc offering close or extended views which made for some pleasant bird watching as well. House Swifts and Crested Tree-swifts and Barn Swallows skimmed the water as they hunted. A Black-headed Ibis foraged a foot away from the crocodiles.
The leopard had moved to another location and we had one more look before driving out. I did not have a leopard photography session this morning but I had taken a very interesting repertoire of images ranging from Large-billed Crows, Wild Pigs and Jackals feeding on carcasses to Hanuman Langurs and Spotted Deer lined up to drink water. I had also taken some images of birds and crocodiles. It is amazing what a morning at a waterhole in Yala during the peak of the dry season can yield.