SHOOTING LEOPARDS IN YALA

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2002). Shooting Leopards in Yala. Serendipity. June 2002. Page 4.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne takes YATV to Yala and nearly runs out of film as Leopard and Bear put on a great performance
Amarasiri, with scarcely a look behind, swung the Land Rover into the famous Meda Para off the main arterial road which runs into the Yala National Park. “Leopard City” I announced casually, alerting the crew from Young Asia Television (YATV) that we had entered one of the Leopard hot spots in the Yala National Park. I had wondered whether we would ever get so far. Tharindi Fonseka, the young producer and presenter of the Mihisara Environmental program had been concerned that a TV crew on a two day visit would not get enough footage to air a ‘Leopard Story’ on the public networks. As a precaution, she and her colleagues in Colombo had sourced two back up stories on our way to Yala. We had detoured in search of a temple in the Suriya Wewa area which had been damaged by elephants, coming into increasing conflict with villagers. I had been glad of the detour. The villagers and the priest had encouraged me with their insight that the human elephant conflict was a result of the increasing de-forestation. They were in favour of keeping the remaining forests intact and in fact enhancing them, so that man and elephant could live side by side.
Finally, we were on the search for Leopards. Hearing my announcement of imminent leopard, Upul, a seasoned cameraman, immediately positioned himself to handle a monster of a professional broadcast camera. I was wrong. Indika Thushara the tracker riding beside Amrasiri spied not a Leopard, but a Sloth Bear on a Palu Tree. It was May and the Palu trees were predictably in fruit, making it the bear watching season. According to Ravi Samarasinha, one of the Leopard researchers hosted at Yala Safari Game Lodge, the late rains have resulted in a poor Palu crop. This Sloth Bear was making the most of it until we came along. It scampered away, leaving Upul and me frustrated. Our frustration was short lived. Barely five minutes later, Amarasiri an experienced safari driver, spotted a Leopard cub on a Palu Tree. This was Gonalabbe Meda Para Male Cub no 5 or GMC 5 (I use the notation Ravi Samarasinha has developed in his study of photographic identification of individual Leopards). I fired off a stream of safety shots in case the leopard made off. It did not. We began to enjoy nearly an hour of uninterrupted Leopard watching as the cub groomed itself, walked onto different branches, peered at us, yawned, stretched and put on a magnificent performance for the YATV crew. As the show went on, a warm smile lit the faces of Tharindi and the rest of her crew, Ranil and Tharanga who were handling sound and general back up. With a busy schedule, they had half wondered why they had allowed themselves to be talked into coming to Yala with my tale of Sri Lanka being ripe for promotion as the top Leopard watching destination in Asia, if not in the world. The credit for this claim goes to people like Jehan Kumara and Ravi Samarasinha who have gone public with their views that Yala may have one of the highest densities of Leopards in the world.
For someone in eco-tourism this was exciting news. In fact, the prime reason for my visit was to join Yohan Pieris from Whittals who was visiting the Yala Safari Game Lodge with Sophie Walker from Kuoni. I was anxious to meet them and exchange ideas to establish Sri Lanka on the international Big Game Safari scene.
“Oh my god” cried Upul who had momentarily turned his gaze. Striding beside the road towards us, with tail up in the air was another Leopard. Bigger than the 1 year plus cub on the tree. Much to everyone’s surprise it settled down in an open area, within sight of the jeep behind us. They gestured to us to reverse. We were in a dilemma. Should we risk losing our camera angle to the rarer sight of a Leopard on a tree. We stayed, and missed the larger Leopard who entertained the jeeps behind us with a show of rolling around. The light faded and the sky took on a hint of pink. Upul rolled the last few frames as the cub stretched and clambered down and walked away.
“As you can see” I had spoken into the camera, with the cub framed in the background, Yala is one of the best destinations in the world to see Leopard”. This was to be further reinforced. The next morning we encountered Anjali Watson and Andrew Kittle, the other two Leopard Researchers hosted at the Yala Safari Game Lodge. They were on Meda Para observing the Gonalabbe Meda Para Male Cub no 5 or GMC 5. It was seated on the edge of the thorn scrub, bordering a grassy plain.
In the evening we met it again. This time it was in the mood for a theatrical performance. As the evening light fell on an open glade, it rolled about on the grass, paws sticking up in the air. Having entertained the watching jeeps for about thirty minutes, it retreated into the thicket. With light fading, Lionel, our tracker suggested that we made a timely exit to honour the park’s rules. Fortunately for us, unfortunately for Lionel, Gonalabbe Meda Para Male Cub No 4 (GMC 4), one of park’s best known entertainers had other ideas. It was seated on the middle of the road, blocking two jeeps. It lay down, head in the paws, stood up, looked around, head down again. It seemed to be in no hurry and the cameras rolled. As light faded, reluctantly, the waiting jeeps edged past the cub, to exit. Back at the Lodge we swapped notes with other guests at the Lodge and put information up on the notice board. Yohan, Sophie and her friend Sally had missed the leopards. We made them envious by showing the YATV footage. The next day, they made amends, with two Leopards and a Bear. As for us we headed to the beach. Tharindi had to be filmed, presenting against the backdrop of the beach, where the surf lapped the edges of the jungle. It was best to do this before Upul used all his film on Leopard. Then it was on for a rendezvous with Anjali and Andrew for an interview and another with Chandra Jayawardana, the hotels’s naturalist. We did pause on the way, a Sloth Bear lurked in the tangled vegetation on the Akasa Chaitya Road and an inquisitive Stripe-necked Mongoose investigated us. Whilst returning to Colombo, the YATV crew received an SMS message from an anxious colleague in office. “Any leopard footage?”.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is an Executive Director of Jetwing Eco Holidays (gehan@jetwing.lk, www.jetwingeco.com) which specializes in Birding, Rainforest and Wildlife Safari holidays. He is the lead author of A Birdwatchers Guide to Sri Lanka (OBC) and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka (New Holland). To receive his free, wildlife e-newsletter, send him an e-mail with “Subscribe Wildlife News” in the message header.