LEOPARD SAFARIS. HOW THE LEOPARD’S SPOTS WERE CHANGED TO ECO DOLLARS

How the Leopard’s spots were changed to Eco Dollars

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2009). Leopard Safaris. How the Leopard’s spots were changed to Eco Dollars. Hi Magazine. March 2009. Series 7, Volume 1. Page 154-156. ISSN 1800-0711.
We were on our way back from The Gathering at Minneriya to Vil Uyana in Sigiriya and Shyamalee Tudawe the Editor of Hi Magazine was in a jubilant mood after her first encounter with The Gathering. She enthused about how much Sri Lanka has to offer and how little its own citizens seem to know about it. I mentioned that the Sri Lankan Leopard was not in the vocabulary of tourism either until I with the help of colleagues and leopard enthusiasts set about to place it on the tourism agenda. Shyamalee was not aware of my press blitz of a few years ago to equate leopards with livelihoods and revenues in tourism. I was indignant, but realised how once a job is done well, the history blurs and everyone assumes that it was always the way things were. It was not. When I returned to Sri Lanka in December 1999, the Sri Lankan Leopard was not a tourism product. It required a massive and concerted effort with a fortuitous combination of people and events which helped to take the knowledge international.
My first attempt to convince the international media of how good Sri Lanka was for seeing and filming leopards was on Saturday 28th November 1992 at the British Museum of Natural History. Samantha Purdu was working with a wildlife film crew in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania and had using a special safety cage slung at ground level taken a riveting image of a lioness. She delivered an illustrated lecture during the Wildlife Photography Symposium which was following on from the launch of the British Gas BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition. There were some wonderful images of the cats, including leopards. In my notes, one of more than thirty hand written diaries, I had noted that she had talked about lions attacking a leopard with cubs. After her lecture I approached her during a tea break and launched into a sales spiel to convince her to film leopards in Sri Lanka.
I had been watching leopards since around the age of three in Wilpattu and Yala with my Uncle Dodwell de Silva who introduced me to wildlife. I had also seen the legendary German film maker Dieter Plage in action in the field making several films on Sri Lankan wildlife including the film ‘The leopard that changed its spots’. My honest to god personal testimony and that the work of Dieter Plage I felt would make a compelling case for any wildlife film maker to make a bee line to Sri Lanka to film leopard. I spoke to Samantha and waxed eloquent about leopards in Sri Lanka. She listened patiently but did not seem to be taking the bait. Some of the biggest names in wildlife photography were at the symposium. I did not think I had convinced any one of them with my leopard story. However, I learnt a lesson that day at the symposium. Wildlife film makers and photographer follow the trail of researchers. Thus in 1992 the seeds were laid in my mind for the Jetwing Research Initiative.
Making a convincing story had to wait at least another nine years, after I ‘was returned’ to Sri Lanka in December 1999. In April 2001, I joined Jetwing to develop eco-tourism in Sri Lanka, thanks to Hiran Cooray spotting that I was in search of a challenge. He also took an enormous gamble in bringing in a banker who was more acquainted with the mysterious world of Black-Scholes models and normal distributions of asset returns than the world of tour operators and travel agents.
The Sri Lankan Leopard always had a small following, mainly a select few from Colombo. George Ondatjee the hotelier and entrepreneur, Lionel Jirasinghe, Lal Anthonis the photographer and my uncle were examples of perhaps less than a hundred people who were regular ‘Yala people’, who with them took out a circle of friends to Yala at least once a quarter. My uncle was one of the few who then had a serious penchant for leopards. But none were obsessive. On the Yala and Wilpattu trips, in the nights, I would read the account of the man eater of Punanai, published in the Department of Wildlife Conservation’s magazine. Every night I would wake up in a sweat with the same bad dream of being hunted by a man eater.
Nihal Fernando’s images had already graced some of the tourism literature of Sri Lanka and I once had the privilege of my uncle taking me on a game drive with him. I was not even a teenager and I listened with awe as he explained that he replaces a camera every few years. But this was a time with no leopard fanatics and the leopard was not a branded as a tourism product.
Whilst I was in the UK, a new generation of leopard enthusiasts had formed. A group which would play a vital role in my subsequent commercial strategy for leopards. In the 1990s, Harith Perera had begun to keep detailed records of leopards he was seeing in Yala. He would note the time, location and behaviour. He was essentially mapping the home range of leopards and working out their behavioural patterns. Both male and female leopards would ‘scent mark’ the boundaries of their territories by spraying vegetation with urine and also by scratching the bark and ground with their claws. Harith had realized that by recording these observations, he could improve his chances of seeing leopards. Sadly, I never met Harith or saw his diaries as he died in a tragic road accident before I returned to Sri Lanka. But in my conversations with the late Ravi Samarasinha and Rukshan Jayawardene, it was clear that Harith was the original leopard guru. Harith’s work inspired Ravi Samarasinha to do the same and when I first met Ravi in the year 2000, he already had five to six years of data. Rukshan also told me that it was Harith who opened his eyes to the view that one would systematically go after individual leopards and not have it left open purely as a matter of chance. Ravi and Ruskhan were to become the two most important planks of my commercial strategy because of their willingness to share their knowledge.
In February 2001, within a few weeks of my joining Jetwing I presented a board paper outlining the Jetwing Research Initiative under which we would support research, primarily with logistics support with food and accommodation. The other working directors of Jetwing fully endorsed it. By an amazing co-incidence, within a short space of time Anjali Watson and Andrew Kittle arranged a meeting with Hiran Cooray to seek sponsorship at what was then the Yala Safari Beach Hotel. This request fitted in perfectly with the concept of the Jetwing Research Initiative. I went down to meet them in Hiran’s office. In less than half an hour we had agreed to support them and Hiran phoned the late Upali Weerasinghe the General Manager of the hotel to say that he would soon be hosting three leopard researchers. In June 2001 I minuted a discussion at the hotel with Upali, Anjali and Andrew on how to use the Leopard Team for promoting tourism. The Leopard team comprised of three people, the third person being Ravi Samarasinha.
Before long I received a worried call from the late Herbert Cooray, the chairman of Jetwing. I was summoned to his office and he asked me if it was true that were providing food and accommodation for three researchers. I confirmed our plans. “Do you have any idea what this is going to cost us?” he said. We estimated that it was worth at least a million rupees of sponsorship. He rolled his eyes up in sheer disbelief. I could see that he was worried that his son Hiran and I were off on a conservation tangent that would diverge from our core business. I reassured him that it was very much a business decision and explained how the leopards will not only generate business but bring millions of dollars worth of international publicity. “How long will that take?” he asked. “Two years” I replied and more by chance than judgment in almost exactly two years we had the first of a series of foreign film crews which would feature the research on leopards.
However unknown to me, there was already a film being made on the Sri Lankan leopard and the cameraman Gordon Buchannan was already staying at the Yala Safari Game Lodge (as it was re-named later). The fact that no one in Jetwing seemed to know illustrates the complete absence of focus on wildlife tourism in those days not only by Jetwing but by the entire tourism industry. Jehan Kumara had made an amateur video recording of an amazing encounter between a leopard and buffalos. The leopard attempted to kill a calf and the mother repeatedly head butted the hunter who escaped. As a result of this footage, Mike Birkhead commissioned a film, the ‘Leopard Hunters’.
Ravi and Jehan were consultants to the film. The two of them together with Rukshan Jayawardene were also working on a book, ‘For the Leopard’ to commemorate the original Leopard Hunter, Harith Perera and to raise money for a leopard conservation trust. Jehan, Ravi and Rukshan were the current alpha league members of the park’s leopard hunters. They commanded shock and awe as they raced around the park with the best guides, enormous lenses in seemingly single minded pursuit of the Big Spotted One. Jehan was almost a British Raj figure. His man servant would clean his cameras and load them with film after every game drive (incidentally I popularised the term ‘game drive’ locally to replace the term ‘round’ which was in use). In the field at a leopard sighting Jehan would hold up his hand and his able assistant would place a camera on them. There were others who were also infected with leopard fever. Amongst others they included Namal Kamalgoda, Jehan Kumara, Ifham Raji, Chitral Jayatilake, etc. But none matched the mystique and air of invincibility that surrounded Ravi, Ruskhan and Jehan. News of their every visit and sighting traveled around in the grapevine and others began to discreetly follow their vehicles to improve their chances of a leopard sighting.
I plugged into this leopard fever to assimilate information into a commercial plan which would take leopards to the general public and the international press. Rukshan and Ravi were my two key sources of leopard know how. Rukshan enjoyed a very strong reputation as a technical virtuso and a gentleman who willingly shared his knowledge. However it was Ravi who became my lynch pin in the crusade to put Sri Lankan leopards on the map. Firstly, because he was now officially a leopard researcher. Secondly because he had a six year history of data in a ‘leopard sightings book’ with accompanying notes and maps he was willing to show me an the press, thirdly because I was having frequent dinner conversations with him at the Game Lodge and finally because he was comfortable being on-camera whenever I wheeled in journalists and TV crews.
Drawing on my conversations with Ravi and Rukshan and reading up, I formulated a core media brief as to why the Sri Lankan leopard was a story. I came up with the media brief that Sri Lanka was one of the best places in the world, if not the best for seeing and photographing Leopard. That Sri Lanka was indisputably your best chance in Asia for leopard. I then went on to explain why. It was because Yala had one of the highest, if not the highest densities of leopard in the world. Furthermore leopards were easy to see in Yala because of this high density coupled with the fact that it was the top predator. They were at ease during the day as leopards were not in turn hunted by other predators. The terrain also made for easy viewing of these relaxed leopards. The high density of leopard was actually due to man made (or anthropogenic factors) such as an abundance of water holes and grasslands, both of which were vestiges of ancient agriculture.
The media brief I began to roll out by email and in print was the first credible explanation as to why Sri Lanka was so good for leopard. It was also the first realization by Sri Lankan tourism that leopards were a sellable product both for tourism and as an international media story. Thus began the first serious attempt to use leopards as a tourism product and to woo the local and international media. Up to the tragic Boxing Day Tsunami of December 2004, almost every two months I was in Yala with local or international press to disseminate the leopard story. In the first three years, and especially when Ravi was staying at the Lodge, my team made Ravi the focus for the press.
Surprisingly I began my media blitz without great images of leopards. I asked Ravi for some images and he gave me three slides which I realised were total rejects which would have been earmarked to be consigned to the bin. I did not take offence as I understood that photographers at that time were very reluctant to part with original slides. In 2001, quality digital cameras had not yet been developed. In 2001, for the first time I attended the British Birdwatching Fair in a professional capacity. Our modest brochure carried an image of a leopard I had taken whilst I was still living in the UK. Realising the need for image acquisition, I became the first Sri Lanka to own a 600mm f4 lens. At that time, for the same price, I could have bought a second hand vehicle. Fortunately for me, Hiran Cooray was with me and bailed me out with his credit card as HSBC refused to allow the purchase to go through on my card.
I returned in September 2001 armed now with the heavy machinery in the mould of Rukshan Jayawardene who was intimidating and inspiring everyone with his Sigma 800mm lens. I had a commercial agenda and Ruskhan did not. Both of us were instrumental in influencing others to upgrade their armoury over the next few years. But I always felt that it was Rukshan who was the key inspiration to others to upgrade their equipment because he was after perfection for the sake of outstanding photography. In the next two years I went after the shots. Almost all of my great shots had the words of Ravi or Rukshan whispering in my mind as I went to the right place and did all the right things to acquire the images.
Ravi in his research named each leopard individually with a name such as Gmc5 (Gonalabbe meda para leopard cub no 1) and Jrmc1 (Jamburagala road male cub no 1). The individual identification played an enormous part in earning credibility and making a story I could spin out to the press. In 2001/2002 Gmc5 was a male leopard who was performing for the media. One day on the Koma Wewa bund, Rukshan gestured for me to pull out from a cluster of vehicles and to re-position myself in another place. I complied without hesitation and I took one of the two leopard images which are the amongst the two most widely published Sri Lankan leopard images in the world. The other was of Jrmc1 which I photographed in the company of journalists from the Island, Daily Mirror, etc.
Two of my former colleagues, Lalin de Mel and Indira Hettiarachchi, who were the Director and Manager respectively of the Jetwing Hotels marketing team circulated these images to tour operators who featured them in tour brochures. The Sri Lankan Leopard’s entry into two brochures began in earnest when Hiran Cooray and I traveled to the British Birdwatching Fair and the World Travel Mart in August and November 2002, respectively.
This time around, the leopard had moved to center stage. Chandrika Maelge, a versatile business manager and creative spirit, had designed our brochure in black with the leopard on the front cover. A host of other promotional material from bookmarks to flyers had leopards on them. We also had a special print of Gmc5 for people to frame and hang. Hiran and I visited a few tour operators and suggested that they feature leopard safaris. Sue Mautner who ran Travel Collection, a division of Kuoni embraced the idea enthusiastically and subsequently ran a series of full page advertisements in a British broadsheet newspaper. Each advertisement cost around a million Sri Lankan rupees. Abercrombie and Kent and also agreed to take it on board. John Keells and Aitken Spence were the local ground agents for Kuoni and Abercrombie & Kent respectively and they received itineraries and other information from us, which they in turn they shared with their other tour operators. It made a lost of sense to share our information as it helped to bring business to the Yala Safari Game Lodge. With other big players on board and Indira and Lalin circulating images and itineraries to tour operators and press, the commercial positioning was firmly in position.
By 2003 big tour operators like Kuoni had featured leopard safaris and also the film Leopard Hunters went on air. In June 2003 the long awaited book ‘Leopard Hunters’ made its debut. Its cut off period was before the support by Jetwing for leopard research which prompted us to publish another book ‘Leopards and other wildlife in Yala’, in 2004. Lalin de Mel presented over 50 copies to carefully chosen tour operators. Lalin also released my leopard images for bags used at travel fairs, airport bill boards, brochures, etc.
As 2004 drew to a close, I had made countless visits to Yala with clients, tour operators, local and foreign print media and TV crews. Everyone seemed to know that Yala was one of the best places in the world to see leopard and several companies had begun to promote it. After two years of cajoling, the safari jeep operators had even raised the top horizontal canopy bars so that wildlife tourists could travel and view wildlife in comfort without crouching. Mola, one of the key safari jeep owners even rolled out a new generation of modified jeeps.
I had done books, given talks, arranged talks, written over a dozen articles and done everything possible with my team to put the Sri Lankan leopard on the tourism map. During Christmas December 2004, we had four groups of clients of Jetwing Eco Holidays. My wife Nirma insisted that I spent Christmas day with the family. On the 26th of that December I traveled up to the lodge for some of the worst days of my life. I joined search teams to recover bodies of colleagues and clients of the lodge who had perished in the Boxing Day Tsunami.
First the Tsunami, then the collapse of the Ceasefire Agreement rocked Sri Lankan tourism. I still continued to promote the leopard. But the absence of the lodge meant that I no longer had a compelling business case or a cost efficient base, to take the media to Yala. Furthermore I had to spend more time at overseas consumer fairs than in Yala, to help save livelihoods. But the media mantra I began with my team at Jetwing, that Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to see leopards and that Yala has one of the highest densities of leopards in the world, still lives on, gathering momentum, with each new publication which repeats it.

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is a British chartered accountant and banker turned wildlife celebrity. He has been responsible for every big wildlife story from Sri Lanka which has developed into an eco-tourism product. He has written and photographed fifteen books and over three hundred articles, locally and internationally. He is CEO of Jetwing Eco Holidays (gehan@jetwing.lk, www.jetwingeco.com).