GRAND SLAMMING IN YALA

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2006). Grand Slamming in Yala. Lifestyle + travel. September/October 2006. Page 130-131. Volume 15, Issue . ISSN 1686-2600.
Big game safari in Yala with sightings of leopard, tusker and sloth bear.

Grand Slamming in Yala

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne has a memorable visit to Yala encountering leopards, sloth bears and tuskers

The rains had not been very good in the last monsoon. Barely a month had lapsed since the force of the North-east Monsoon had abated and the jeep tracks were already covered in a film of fine dust. I worried for the fate of the five nocturnal, the persets of this season’s leopard cubs, which many visitors had succeeded in seeing. Every year, Yala or Ruhuna National Park in the south-east of Sri Lanka has one or more leopard cubs in a litter which perform to the crowds. Whilst the adult leopards are shy and formers of the year seem to deliberately court attention from the media and adoring crowds. In February 2006, the Padikkema Cubs were the resident stars. They had been first seen when they were just a few weeks old. They had been carefully handled by the park regulars to avoid scaring them off. They were now a year old and confident with visitors. Such was their popularity the jeep tracks around their preferred rocky outcrop had been declared a one way system. Even this was not enough to cope with the thronging masses.

I was with members of the Eco Holidays team for one of our routine visits to the park, timed to coincide with visits by our clients who were staying at the Yala Village hotel on the outskirts of the park. We had set off after an early lunch to beat the crowds. But it never works according to plan. Yala is one of the finest national parks in the world, when taking its Asia context into account. The number of species of mammals which can be encountered on game drive is very high compared to other national parks. Then there are the birds, butterflies and flowering plants. All of which meant that when we reached Padikkema, we were much later than had planned. The safari jeeps had already arrived for Yala’s and one of Sri Lanka’s top draw. The leopard. The male Padikkema cub was obligingly sprawled on a tree. Master Naturalist Uditha Hettige was there with his clients. Naturalist Chauffeur Guide Wicky was in position with a mammal photographer. So too were a score of safari jeeps, patiently waiting for the slumbering cub to come out into full view. How long that would be was debatable. Chandrika, Ajanthan, Ayanthi and I conferred. We decided to prowl around and return. There were cubs at the Boralu Wala on the main road, near Talgasmankada, Sudu Welimulla, Darshana Wewa, a sub adult on the Meda Para, the list was long.

Block 1 of the Yala National Park has probably one of the highest densities of leopards in the world. Density alone is not the key to successful leopard viewing. Two other factors contribute to make Sri Lanka one of the best places in the world for seeing this graceful and enigmatic cat. The leopard is numero ono, the top terrestrial predator. It has little to fear on the land unlike in India where it is in competition with the Tiger or in Africa where it faces the constant threat of Lions and Hyenas. Secondly, the terrain is relatively open. Grasslands intersperses with thorn scrub makes leopard viewing relatively easy as it is seldom hidden in tall grass or dense
forest.

We turned in to Meda Para, an area I had once termed Leopard City because of some previous occupants who never failed to oblige me when I arrived with television crews. Another leopard was on a Palu Tree. Should we wait or should we go? Generally I am loathe to leave a leopard sighting. But I suspected the leopard would descend in a flash and vanish into the thorn scrub just as quickly. The likelihood of it coming out into the open was small as the leopard on the tree was an adult. I suggested we press on, not an altogether popular decision at the time, but soon to be vindicated.

Approaching Buttuwa Wewa (lake) a Sloth Bear was padding through the thorn scrub. We held our breaths afraid of making the slightest noise. Sloth Bears are even harder to see than leopards. The exception is when in May and June the Palu Tree is in fruit and Sloth Bears gorge themselves on the fruit in broad daylight. The Sloth Bear emerged out of the scrub and to our disbelief sat down beside the road. The pale “V” collar which is seldom seen showed up clearly. One safari jeep reversed, its occupants nervous at such blatant exhibitions of confidence. The Sloth Bear scratched its head and yawned showing some fearful canines. Certainly not a beast to take any chances with, despite it being on an evolutionary road to semi-specialization. The Sloth Bear has opted for a culinary specialisation, termites. It has sacrificed its leading incisors to that it can put its lips and use vacuum suction on termites.

The bear ambled away and we had barely gone a few hundred meters when we encountered a tusker. Unlike in African Elephants, in Asian Elephants only the males carry tusks. In Sri Lanka around five per cent of the males carry tusks. Therefore the number of tuskers are small and each one in Yala is individually known. This was Mahasen. We were astonished. We had achieved a grand slam, leopard, bear and tusker on a game drive. My first after visiting the park for forty years (oops, that’s giving away my age). Many of the park’s trackers who visit the park twice a day may not achieve it either after a posting of a few years.

There was more to come. The next morning the Boralu Wala leopard cubs treated us to a show. They would have stayed with us longer if an over eager safari jeep had not raced up to us. Another Sloth Bear padded along a jungle road giving us a good view. We had pulled up to photograph a Blue-tailed Bee-eater when the trumpeting of elephants prompted us to reverse and investigate. A small family group of elephants had just been joined by another of the park’s tusker, Gemunu. It was too good to be true, another grand slam.

On our way out an SMS came in from the office enquiring how things are going. Oh! the usual.

Averaging weekly media appearances, writer& photographer Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne (gehan@jetwing.com) is one of the best known wildlife & tourism personalities in Sri Lanka. He is CEO of Jetwing Eco Holidays (www.jetwingeco.com).