SILENT AS NIGHT, STEALTHY AS SHADOWS

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2007). Silent as Night, Stealthy as Shadows. Serendib, the in-flight magazine of Sri Lankan. January-February 2007. Pages 51-55.
An insight into Leopards.

The Leopards of Sri Lanka

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne has had a passion for leopards since the age of five. Here he gives an insight into these graceful hunters.

My old friend White-lip was missing. I wondered where he was. I missed his bullying habits and bad temper. Usually at this time of the year, in August, he provided me with entertainment, with spirited chases between rival males and plenty of showing of teeth. Perhaps he had discovered another water hole. Worse, had something happened to him? White-lip was a fearsome and large crocodile that dominated the pecking order at the Handunoruwa water hole in Rununa National Park, in the south east of Sri Lanka. The entire protected area complex is around 1,500 square kilometers or about two percent of the island’s land area. Yala, as it is popularly known, is one of the finest national parks in the world and one of the best in Asia for seeing mammals.

I had pulled over at Handunoruwa with Amarasiri, one of my favorite safari jeep drivers at the wheel. With me was an Australian journalist, anxious to see for herself the credibility of one of my stories. This was not a story about crocodiles, that ancient animal which has barely changed for millions of years. Yes, I could not begrudge that its design as a hunter that has stood evolution’s test. But my story for the media was on a more graceful hunter. One with feline grace, the big spotted one.

Yala National Park has one of the highest average densities of leopard in the world. This is not to be confused with home ranges for the technically minded. An adult female has a home range of between two and four square kilometers. This is the area it needs to live, to hunt, to mate and to rear offspring. An adult male needs around sixteen to twenty square kilometers as a home range. The territory of a male overlaps the territory of several females. This is very much a part of the plan. Like most cats, leopards are solitary animals. Especially the adult males. Their interaction with females is for, well, urm ……….. sex. Serious business of course, for the line of leopards has to be maintained and someone has to do it. So the fitter males channel a good part of their energy and time to maintaining and defending a large territory through which they control access to females who may come into season from time to time.

Chemistry, not physical contact, is the mechanism employed for the maintenance of territories. Physical contact can be bloody and can mean death for the weaker challenger. Leopards maintain their territories usually by scent marking. They spray urine to maintain a chain of invisible boundary posts. Scratches on trees and scrapes on ground impregnated with scent are other ways of maintaining a boundary.

There is something enigmatic about leopards. Photographers adore them, some to the point of obsession. Most visitors love a leopard sighting above all else. Who can blame them, for to watch a leopard in the wild is to run the risk of seduction. The Sri Lankan leopard is the same species which spreads across Asia to Africa. Scientists recognize about half a dozen sub-species or geographical races. The Sri Lankan sub-species kotiya or Panthera pardus kotiya to use its full Latin or scientific name is unique to Sri Lanka. It is an endemic sub-species. Some also believe that it may be one of the largest, if not the largest of the sub-species.

Until serious research was done on leopards, many people did not realise that most of the leopards seen during the daytime were sub-adults. The adults are largely nocturnal. By the age of fifteen months, a male cub is nearly as large as its mother. Daytime sightings allegedly of an adult with cub are more often than not of a male and female sub-adult pair of siblings together. Around this age, the male begins to embark on exploratory forays. Between eighteen months and two years, it will push out to seek a new territory for itself. Many don’t make it. Hostile interactions may push it out to marginal territories where starvation leads to disease and death.

We watched idly as a few crocodiles cruised the drying waterhole. A few made a spirited dash at shoals of fish. The fish would leap out of the water like an arc of silver spray from a welder’s arc. The crocodile has one design flaw for an animal adapted to hunting in water. It does not have lips on its jaws to make its mouth water proof. Evolution must have noticed this along the way and plugged it with a fix. The throat has a valve which stops water entering. The passage from the nostrils has been ducted to join the throat behind the valve. So it can cruise with just its nostrils and eyes above the water, despite the lack of a waterproof mouth.

Spotted Deer nervously approached the water for a drink. They were visibly nervous. They were vulnerable from both ends. In front, danger lay in the water. From behind there was risk of ambush by a hungry leopard which had not read the manual which said that they hunt by night. In the dry lowlands, Spotted Deer they are the preferred prey of the leopard. Without the predators, the herbivores would multiply without control and eat the grasslands down to bare soil.

The leopard is also what scientists call a keystone species. As the top predator, it helps to maintain a healthy eco-system. The leopard has of late risen to a new significance. It had become the glamour face behind Sri Lanka’s emergence as one of the top Asian destinations for big game safaris. Un-heard of until 2001, Leopard Safaris were now attracting interest and money.

That begets the question, where were the leopards? Fortunately, Charlotte, the Australian journalist with me was not too fussed with my approach to finding leopards. And my approach is? Quite simple. Don’t worry about the leopards. I had worked out by trial and error that five game drives yield a ninety per cent chance of seeing leopards. It took quite a few game drives to arrive at these valuable statistics. But sacrifices have to be made and I was happy to volunteer my time to do my bit for Sri Lanka, driving along the mammal rich, dusty roads of Yala. Having checked where the latest hot spots were, my strategy has always been to enjoy the park. Pull up at a waterhole and watch the world go by. Drive around a little and do the same. Sooner or later the jungle telegraph will tell you where the leopards are.

The jungle telegraph rang, suddenly and un-expectedly. The call was from right overhead. To my mild embarrassment, we had been parked under a sentinel, from a troop of Hanuman Langurs. I did not even know that we were under the watchful gaze of a langur. Langurs don’t have much flesh on the bones, but leopards don’t seem to mind. Not surprisingly, the Langurs don’t seem to have the same love and admiration we have for the leopards.

The agitated barking of the Langur reached a hysterical crescendo. It bounded here and there on the tree and literally began to gnash its teeth. Other Langurs began to call excitedly. Mass hysteria began to set in. This was not a hunting jackal or other small predator. It could be only one thing. Leopard. Anxiously we craned our heads and began to look around. ‘Over there’ hissed Amarasiri, pointing through a bush to the water’s edge. There, a leopard cub gently picking its way to the water. It was small, perhaps less than six months old. “There are two of them’ hissed the tracker excitedly. But both of the cubs were covered by a bush. It would have been so tempting to move the vehicle for a better view. But I knew from experience that this may draw the curtain on the sighting. “Lets stay where we are” I whispered firmly. It paid off. One cub quickly drank and left. The other stayed on to explore the edge for a while and went away. The pair of cubs did not seem shy. Perhaps in the months to come, they may entertain hundreds of visitors. Yala has always been lucky to have one or more sub-adults which takes on the mantle of being the year’s star performer. Only time will tell whether these cubs would rise to the occasion.

“Well, as I was saying” I said to Charlotte mustering my best all knowing sage like tone, “in Yala, the trick to seeing leopard is not to worry too much about looking for one’.

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne (gehan@jetwing.lk) has written and photographed several publications and is one of the best known personalities in wildlife and tourism in Sri Lanka.

Whom shall I book with?
Most tour operator can arrange a visit to the national parks. Serious wildlife enthusiasts should contact a specialist operator. See the tour operators listed in A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka published by New Holland (London) ISBN 1-85794-511-3.

What does it cost?
A tailored Leopard Safari can start from GBP 150 plus, per day, per person on a twin share, from a leading specialist company with in-house expertise. A good naturalist guide alone, will cost around GBP 25 a day. Cheaper package tours are available, but you get what you pay for.

Where can I get more information?
www.jetwingeco.com has over a thousand pages of information on Sri Lanka’s fauna and flora. You can sign up for a monthly Sri Lanka Wildlife e-newsletter by e-mailing gehan@jetwing.lk with “Subscribe Wildlife News” in the message header.

What books shall I take?
Bookshops in Colombo such as ODEL and Lake House Bookshop Hyde Park Corner have books on leopards and other wildlife titles covering mammals, butterflies, dragonflies etc. www.jetwingeco.com has a number of books which can be downloaded free.