I had attended a wildlife lecture a week back where I met Spencer Maneuelpillai, who showed some photographs of leopards he had taken the week before at Wilpattu on a day outing. I had been to Wilpattu three times before (had done four game drives), twice this year and was yet to see a leopard. I have seen numerous leopards at Yala before, but was desperate to end my leopard drought at Wilpattu.The following Sunday, three of my friends Mudara, Reza and Amrit were game to spend a full Sunday to try our luck at finding a leopard at Wilpattu, our island’s largest and oldest national park, which before Yala came into the spot light was Sri Lanka’s top spot to watch leopards. Leaving Colombo, at 2:30am, we arrived at the entrance gate to Wilpattu 3 hours later, successfully managing to beat the traffic with our pre-dawn start. Unlike at Yala, where there are large queues even early in the morning to get in, there was only one other vehicle at the gate. We had planned to spend the full day in the park with packed lunches all organised.
Upon entering the park around 6:00am and within about 30 minutes, we had reached Borrupan Villu, the area from where most of the wildlife is seen and so began our relentless search for what we hoped would be even a fleeting glimpse of a leopard. The signs were extremely promising early on, as all the roads leading to the villus were covered in leopard pugmarks as well as Sloth Bear tracks, but by 10:30am despite our best efforts neither were seen. We had a glimpse earlier of a Barking Deer and saw a few small herds of Spotted Deer. Among the birds, we sighted a pair of White-bellied Sea Eagles who put on an aerial display, a number of Black-winged Stilt, Green Bee Eaters, Spot-billed Pelican, Little Cormorant, Grey Heron, Lesser Adjutant Stork, Malabar-pied hornbill. Jungle-fowl, Peacock and a couple of Emerald Dove. A note worthy sighting was a pair of Pacific Golden Plovers wading in the shallow water of a villu, which are usually winter migrants to Sri Lanka.
By around 10:30am we visited the old campsites and the Talawilla bungalow, where I had a chat with two of the trackers posted there about Sloth Bear sightings at Wilpattu, as recent reports had indicated that a large number of bears were being seen here, perhaps even more so than in Yala. The two trackers said that a Sloth Bear with a young cub is seen 4 -5 times a week here late in the evenings, while at Maradan Maduwa, where I saw a pair of Sloth Bear in August, a number of bears, where there could be as many as 6 – 8 different individuals bears that come out of the forest into the villu to drink water.
We then made our way towards the river for lunch, which is located at the edge of Block I of Wilpattu. The drive took us around an hour from Talawilla, which made me realise what a vast area this park covers. The river was nearly dry, yet the setting was very tranquil. After having a bit of a look around the general area, we indulged in a packed rice and curry.
Getting back on the road by around 2pm, the bird sightings began to hot up in the afternoon. We stumbled into a pair of endemic Grey Hornbills and a pair of Blue-faced Malkohas making our way out of the river towards the villus and within about 30 minutes sighted a Juvenille Hawk Eagle, a Grey-headed Fishing Eagle which had captured a fresh-water turtle for its lunch and a large Serpent Eagle on a branch just beside the road, which remanded unphased throughout. Around 4:30pm, a large lone male elephant was sighted feeding on the grass in one of the villus and soon afterwards a pair of Jackal were seen in the distance. It was nearly 6:00pm now and still no leopard or bear we seen. All hopes were now beginning to fade as we began to make our way out of the park.
Our tracker Milinda suggested that we go past Kuruttu Pandi wila one more time, where a mother leopard and two cubs have been seen regularly in the past few months. Suddenly there was a vehicle parked by the side of the road with a hand signaling for us to stop, an unmistakable sign that a leopard was around. We looked straight ahead, and I could not believe my eyes, after toiling all day, our patience was rewarded – the mother two cubs, who were at least a year old were lying on the white sand about 100 metres away playing. We watched them with excitement for about 5 minutes before they disappeared like ghosts back in to the forest. Mission accomplished and my leopard drought outside Yala was over!
Ending the day on a high, we exited the park around 7pm and then drove back home to Colombo. With Wilpattu being just a 3 hour drive from Colombo, with excellent chances of sighting a leopard or a bear, there will definitely be more day outings to follow in the coming months!
Even though I was focusing on the bigger animals I managed to get a Bird list for the day with at least 43 different identified species. Species seen were Red-wattled Lapwing, Spotted Dove, Emerald Dove, Orange-breasted Green Pigeon, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Grey-headed Fishing Eagle, Crested Hawk Eagle, Serpent Eagle, Brahminy Kite, Ceylon Junglefowl, Indian Peafowl, Pacific Golden Plover, Jungle Crow, Bar-buttoned Quail, Greater Coucal, Ceylon Grey Hornbill, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Blue-faced Malkoha, Spot-billed Pelican, Painted Stork, Lesser Adjutant Stork, Grey Heron, Purple Heron, Green Bee Eater, Black-winged Stilt, Little Cormorant, Black-rumped Flameback, Lesser Whistling Teal, Indian Pond Heron, Cattle Egret, Open-bill Stork, Eurasian Spoonbill, White-breasted Kingfisher, Brown-headed Barbet, White-bellied Drongo, Paddyfield Pipit, Red-vented Bulbul, Greater Egret, Indian Nightjar, Oriental Magpie Robin, Yellow-billed Babbler, Common Myna and Gull-billed Tern.