de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2002). A Park for All Seasons. LMD. October 2002. Page 148. Volume 9, Issue 3. ISSN 1391-135X.
On the majestic show put up by the park’s top entertainer.
Wildlife Photographer Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne found Yala dry, but not devoid of excitement
It was the second week of August. The trees lining the roadside were clothed in a film of powdery dry dust. The trees were withered and wilted, the deciduous trees having shed their leave to reduce evaporation. They stood stark, naked of foliage, a grim testimony to the seasonal drought. A veil of despair seemed to hang over the park. My heart sank as I travelled along Gonalabbe Meda Para, with my wife Nirma and our two children. All of the waterholes were on that road were bone dry, except for Koma Wewa, which still held a muddy brine. The prospects for seeing wildlife and leopard in particular seemed thin. The trackers I travelled with were very clear on what was required. The water holes were silted up, barely a foot deep in some. The silt had to be removed carefully without puncturing the clay membrane which held the water. With the storage capacity increased, water could be made available to last until the next monsoon. With more water, more herbivores would survive. So too would their hunters. One hunter in particular, would have a chance of increasing its numbers. The leopard, possibly Sri Lanka’s prime eco-tourism asset.
We passed a waterhole. Hexagonal patterns were etched on its surface as the top layer of mud had dried, buckling and curving under differential stress. A geometry that was juxtaposed against the chaos of carelessly strewn leaves. A whisper of a wind, rustled the leaves. The wind was dry, devoid of moisture. A plume of dust bellowed behind my vehicle. The waterholes could be excavated the trackers informed me, but there was no diesel to run the bulldozer. I wondered how many herbivores would die this dry season due to a lack of 250 litres of diesel. How many leopards will not survive to adulthood. Playing the emotional card would not do. But an economic trump card could come to the rescue. Sri Lanka’s wildlife, Leopards in particular, will grow in importance to tourism. The private sector has a role to play in habitat management in the national parks. It can work in partnership with a beleaguered Wildlife Department, which is strapped for resources, cash in particular.
Kota Bendi Wewa which only a few weeks ago was the scene of a four hour Leopard watching session by Cindy Munro and others, was devoid of even a drop of water. Even the Yellow-wattled Lapwings, dry zone specialists who had a territory here, were absent. An Indian Black Robin sang forlornly. We headed to Koma Wewa, the last hope for animals and their photographers. I remembered Namal Kamalgoda’s wise words spoken during one of the Nature Photographer 2001 Competition lectures. “Do not belt around the park during the dry season unless you are a dust eating microbe” he said. “Take your time at the remaining waterholes. The animals will come to drink”. The Montero climbed onto the steep embankment. We were not alone. Ahead of us, staking out the two waterholes were two vehicles, with more optical equipment slung out of the windows than you would see in a camera shop. Wildlife Photographers Chitral Jayatilaka, Dilrukshan Handunetti and Gopal Iyer knew the drill. They were waiting, gear loaded and primed, fingers on the shutter release. Waiting and watching.
A flock of Alexandrine Parakeets screeched in, circled and descended on to some Woodapple treelets. The males were handsome with a stout red beak and a red shoulder patch. They surveyed the area for danger and flew onto the waters edge. They drank quickly from a puddle at the edge. They were joined by a flock of Spotted Doves. The doves are delicate creatures, in subdued colours. The birds were not perturbed by the Marsh Crocodiles, with open jaws, which were in a lethargic stupor. A braying call filled the empty air. A Spotted Deer stag was establishing its dominance. A line of deer straggled into view and formed a semi-circle to drink. Others stood watch. In the distance a, sharp note rang through. The distinctive alarm call of a Spotted Deer. Later, another alarm call ran again, this time closer. The jungle grapevine was announcing the imminent arrival of the star of the show. “Over there” exclaimed tracker Vasantha Hewage, pointing to the far side. A sinuous spotted shape glided into view and vanished into the scrub jungle. We drove up slowly, and he crossed behind us, stopping to look, in no particular hurry.
We returned in the evening. As we climbed up the embankment, the same leopard came walking along the waters edge and circled into the scrub. The other photographers who had arrived earlier, gave a jubilant thumbs up. This was GMC 5, a male leopard cub, probably close to 2 years of age. He is the most photographed Leopard in Sri Lanka, being fairly tolerant of vehicles. GMC 5 came to rest in a glade of grass. He scratched his ears, flicked his tail, flopped down, looked up and so on. The show went on for half an hour. By now, the embankment was filled with a convoy of safari vehicles. Safari driver Kalu Malli and tracker Rupasinghe had timed their arrival well with Sri Lankan cricketers Mahela Jayawardana, Kumar Sangakkara and Nuwan Zoysa. GMC 5 then cautiously approached the water, with a snarl or two for good order. The sun was sinking below a row of Woodpapple, Palu and Katupila trees, against a cloudless sky. The leopard crossed a terrain of light and shadow as even the slightest depression in the mud, cast deep shadows. The low, raking light, lit his spotted coat in a golden blaze, the far side in deep shadow. The lighting was theatrical, entirely appropriate for the grand finale by the park’s top entertainer.
The writer is the CEO of a wildlife and adventure travel company. He is the lead author of A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka (OBC) and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka (New Holland). To subscribe to his free, wildlife e-newsletter, e-mail him at gehan@jetwing.lk with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.