LEOPARD SAFARI IN YALA

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2009). Leopard Safari in Yala. Sunday Leader. Sunday 2 August 2009. Page 8.
On leopard Safari in Yala with the family of Dr Peter Hayes, the British High Commissioner, three weeks after the FCO relaxed the travel advisory on Yala.

http://www.thesundayleader.lk/20090802/onthespot.HTM

July 2009 was going to be a very busy month for the Jetwing Eco Holidays team. In August, we will be attending the British Bird Fair for the 9th consecutive year. We would need to re-visit some of the key wildlife tourism sites prior to the Bird Fair with the office based operations team to ground truth the current situation. Both the sites themselves as well as the facilities in terms of access, safari jeeps and boats, quality of accommodation can change significantly within the course of a year. A Tour Operator needs also to be like a travel guide writer and make regular field visits to stay in touch. This is especially true of wildlife tourism where site factors can be complex and vary from the state of a footpath to a dragonfly watching pond to keeping pace with the shifting territories of leopards in Yala. An experienced tourism operations executive team, Ganga Weerasinghe, had joined us. But as he was new to wildlife tourism he had to be brought up to speed rapidly. Talangama Wetland, Sinharaja, Kithulgala, Horton Plains, Uda Walawe, Yala and Bundala were on the list of essential sites to be covered in a span of a few weeks in July and August.

On 3rd July 2009, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) relaxed the travel advisory which had previously advised against travel to Block 1 of Yala (Ruhunu National Park). This meant that once again travel insurance covered British travellers to Yala. Other European countries would hopefully follow suit and relax their travel advisories in a similar way. Yala National Park could then once again become a site of core business to in-bound tour operators such as Jetwing Eco Holidays as well as almost every tour operator in Sri Lanka who included a game drive in Yala as part of a round trip itinerary. Our guides visit Yala almost every few weeks. However, it had been a few months since I had last been to Yala with my operations team. This was with Shyamalee Tudawe the Editor of Hi Magazine, when we went on leopard safari in March 2009. The removal of the FCO advisory, a new member of staff and the forthcoming Bird Fair meant there was a new urgency to visit Yala and to be familiar first hand with the new arrangements.

The British High Commissioner Dr Peter Hayes and his wife Kirsty had planned a private family holiday with their two children with two nights at Thimbrimankada Bungalow inside Uda Walawe National Park and two nights at the Yala Village Hotel close to the Yala National Park. They had very kindly invited me to join them. This fitted in perfectly with my plans to take new boy Ganga on a rapid ground recce and we joined them for a memorable day at Uda Walawe. We must have encountered over 70-80 elephants, most of them in small family groups throughout the day. The most memorable was when a family group arrived at the lake in front of the bungalow preceded by a single, large bull. The bull entered the water first, walked towards us, faced us squarely and returned to the family where I presume it was consorting with a receptive female. The family arrived and drank and covered themselves in cooling mud. Other family groups began to arrive in the noon day heat with one family’s departure at the lake overlapping with the arrival of another. Forty or more elephants cooled off and accepted our presence under the shade of a Bahunia tree.

The South-west Monsoon winds gusted and buffeted the exposed bungalow and the Hayes decided to cut one night short at Uda Walawe and we set out for an extra night in Yala. The Elephant Reach Hotel and the Yala Village Hotel supported the visit by my team. At the Yala Village Hotel, Chitral Jayatilake the wildlife photographer staged an illustrated talk followed by an atmospheric dinner held outdoors.

I engaged in five game drives, four of which were with Dr Peter Hayes. This gave us a very good grasp of the ground situation. There were a few key changes which have now come about. Visitors are once again allowed to travel to all areas of Block 1. I also found the local jeep drivers and guides are totally relaxed in traversing all areas of Block 1. Secondly there is a far more sensible arrangement in terms of the entry and exit times for visitors. Tickets are issued from 5.30 am which means that even outside visitors (as opposed to those staying inside park bungalows) are also able have a chance of encountering adult leopards in the morning who may be scent marking their territories before closing off a night of activity. This is especially important because of the work done to brand Yala for its leopards. This work was begun by Jetwing Hotels and Jetwing Eco Holidays and subsequently continued by John Keels Hotels. Yala has now become one of the premier destinations, if not the leading destination in the world for dedicated leopard safaris. More details on how this was developed are in the March 2009 issue (Series 7, Volume 1) of Hi Magazine which can be accessed in the section on articles onwww.jetwingeco.com.

The safari vehicles are also allowed to leave the park at 6.30 pm at dusk. This time may be revised to fit in with the length of day. But at the time of our visit, it meant that we could stay on late enough to watch a mature male atop Kotigala come down and start patrolling its territory in the evening. A more rigid departure time of 6pm would have meant certain aspects of leopard behaviour would not be available for viewing by those not staying inside the park bungalows. The park bungalows were not available for bookings at the time of our visit and it may be several months before they are vacated by the army and refurbished for visitors.

We did not see army foot patrols within the park as on my previous visit. The patrolling goes on, in the early and late hours, discretely to avoid giving negative signals to visitors. Security at the entrance remains tight with the group leader needing to fill in a form with his identification and summary details on the demographics of his group. Blank forms can be taken away and filled before hand. However, when the Yala rush happens as is inevitable, I can imagine delays unless multiple counters are set up for screening. The security was reassuringly thorough. They asked me to open my lens trunk for a 600mm lens and a hard case for a video, just to check on what is being taken into the park.

The park was very dry at the time of our visit as the previous monsoons had failed. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) has over the last few years adopted an active or interventionist approach to conservation and maintained water at key water holes by regularly topping up with water a series of concrete lined ‘bowls’ within the water holes.

Leopard sightings had been phenomenal since July and fortunately there was no change during our three days in the park. Much of the action centered around a mother and her male and female cubs, which I estimate to be just over a year. The two cubs are seen mainly at three water holes, Kohomombagaswala, Siyambalagaswala and Palugaswala No 1. A line drawn from Walmalkema to Palugaswala No 1 will form a line from North-west to South-east connecting four water holes which are within a 3 km line. On this line we had the two cubs, male and female and a mature male atop a rock at Walmal Kema. Others have had sighting of the mother and two cubs making it four individual leopards in a remarkably concentrated area.

On our first evening we were treated to a one hour viewing of the male cub which approached the water hole and rolled about in the sand. It was intrigued by the arrival of a Ruddy Mongoose, but clearly had not yet learnt to hunt. The mongoose took refuge under a fallen log whilst the cub attempted to sniff it out. A lapse of concentration by the leopard saw the mongoose bolting for cover. Soon after, the male cub climbed atop a fallen log. A large male wild pig appeared and seemingly oblivious to the leopard twenty meters away wallowed in the mud and left. The cub was clearly intimidated by the wild boar. It then approached the water to drink and snarled repeatedly at the submerged, patrolling crocodiles. There were large crocodiles in the water which were large enough to drag in an elephant.

The next morning we had a fleeting glimpse of a leopard crossing the road where the main road branches off to Uraniya. In the evening we headed to Kotigala as there had been reports of a leopard climbing the rock. We arrived to find a leopard being admired by several safari vehicles. Leopards have becomes used to the attention of safari vehicles and many tolerate them. It has become easier and easier to take good photographs of them. Photographers are now even finding that leopards are consuming their kills besides the road without dragging them away. This only helps to reinforce Sri Lanka as the Leopard’s Island.

The mature male atop Kotigala must have stayed over half an hour to an adoring audience before it yawned, stretched and ambled off the summit to merge a hundred meters away and crossed the road. The British High Commissioner had three individual leopards on three out of four game drives. My score card read four individual leopards on four out of five game drives between the 24th July.  Inspired by my text updates, Frederica Jansz visited Yala on 25th July and saw three leopards and a Sloth Bear in the Patanangala area on one morning game drive.

It is not always this easy. I always advise people that there is a ninety per cent chance of seeing leopards if you undertake five game drives. This is a safe statistic although there are periods when one or more sets of cubs are performing and leopards seem so easy to see.

The Hayes family and the Jetwing Eco Holidays team had wonderful experiences in Yala. One morning we staked out Rakinawala, one of the larger water holes. From 6.45am to 8.30 am we watched as a procession of mammals and birds came into to the water to drink. A few hundred Spotted Deer must have drunk demonstrating the density of the prey, which enables such a high concentration of leopards to be found. I often cite the statistic given to me by the late Ravi Samarasinha that in this area of the park there can be on average one leopard per square kilometer. This statistic certainly ties in with what keen leopard photographers have observed empirically. It is of course not true of the entire protected area complex which spans 1,200 square kilometers.

On one of our evening game drives, on Welmalkema Road I heard Hauman Langurs barking and I asked Lal to switch off the engine. Over twenty Hanuman Langurs were barking animatedly and looking down. This is the first time I have observed an entire troop acting so animatedly. Previously I have noticed one or more individuals acting as sentinels. It could only be a leopard. I wondered whether this was the mature male we had seen atop a rock last evening which had attempted to hunt a langur or was it one of the two cubs at Kohombagaswala which was innocently straying very close to the troop?

One Hanuman Langur came bounding through the forest and along the road. For a few seconds I wondered whether it was a clash between two troops and expected more individuals from a retreating troop to follow. But none did. A large Hanuman Langur came bounding back along the road and turned into the scrub and clambered up again. I presume it was the same individual. What it was doing was aggressive and risky. Perhaps they knew it was only a leopard cub and this was an act of intimidation by the langurs.

With leopards taking center stage, the other wildlife did suffer some neglect. Sightings of the scarce Southern Sirkeer and elephants mud bathing were some of the other highlights. It is easy to spend an entire day in the park and be always busy with something to see. I could easily do this for weeks at a stretch. But, we also have a business to run. On the Friday morning, after a sighting of the two Kohombagaswala cubs, Ganga and I left the park by 8 am. We had emails to catch up and an early morning departure for a day trip to Sinharaja the following morning to meet clients. Wildlife Tourism is not for those who need regular hours of sleep.