BIG CAT CUBS AT PLAY IN YALA
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2003). Big Cat Cubs At Play In Yala. LMD. September 2003. Page 166. Volume 10, Issue 01. ISSN 1391-135X.
A pair of leopard cubs play to the gallery at Yala.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is entertained by a tolerant pair of Leopard Cubs in Yala
“Leopard, Leopard!”. Priyantha, our jeep driver called out excitedly breaking me out of a reverie I had descended into. It was around 8.30 am, very late to be entering the Gona Labbe Meda Para in search of Leopard. Responsible for this lapse in Leopard Watching was a pair of obliging Stripe-necked Mongoose near Kohombagaswala. They had delayed me for nearly an hour as they dug furiously into the soft sandy soil in search of invertebrates. Normally a scarce mammal in the park, it was a treat to observe them at such close range, behaving in a totally uninhibited manner. The prospect of losing an early morning leopard encounter did not deter me and Vijitha from spending the cool, early hours of the morning with them.
Priyantha, turned around and looked at me for instructions. Looking up I was startled to see a Leopard cub seated on the middle of the road. I gestured to Priyantha for him to stop where we were, about 100 feet away. The instinct of most people on safari is to get close as possible to a Leopard, straight away. This inevitably results in the animal moving away. With patience and care, over a period of time, one can approach very close to many animals including Leopards, by allowing them to gradually get accustomed to you. Only a few weeks ago, Ravi Samarasinha who is conducting research on Leopards and I had held two evening lectures at the Yala Safari Game Lodge for the park’s jeep drivers to explain the importance of not rushing into the animals.
A case study on the virtues of patience began to unfold. The leopard in this case was a female cub, named by Ravi as KBFC1 or Kota Bendi Wewa Female Cub No 1. She was seated on the middle of the road and moved over to the grassy edge. As we waited with no effort to approach closer, her brother KBMC1 walked over and joined her. With a leap, the male cub pranced over onto a tree, followed by his sister. A dead limb of a tree provided an opportunity for some high jinx. The two cubs began to leap onto it simultaneously, pushing each other off and rolling onto the ground. For a few magical moments, the cubs played with each other providing me with one of the highlights of all of the time I have spent watching this graceful and powerful species of cat. Priyantha, our Tracker Mudiyansa and Vijitha watched the action mesmerised, and motionless, under my strict instructions not to move.
After a few minutes of play, the cubs wandered over to a termite mound at the bottom of a Maliththan Tree. We were joined by another group who were staying at the Talgasmankada Bungalow. As we watched from the road, one of the cubs, the male began to doze off. The female moved out of sight.
I was thrilled to see the pair of cubs together again. Over the last month or so, they had put on some exciting performances to entertain visitors to the park. But lately, they had not been seen together, although they were never far from each other. At nearly a year old, they were beginning to find their feet, although they were still dependent on their mother. A month ago in May, a Welsh TV crew filmed them making a mock kill of a Land Monitor which strayed into them whilst they were playing. One of the cubs pounced on it and seized the monitor by the skin on the back of his head. The monitor feigned death and the cubs lost interest. Surreptitiously, the monitor slipped away. I was too late to witness this as my jeep had paused to film birds Aaaargh! But back at the Lodge, we had watched the dramatic footage which Arwyn Williams had captured, in what he described as one of the highlights of his filming career.
It was approaching 10.00 am and I was faced with a dilemma. I had agreed with Terence Rajapaksa, a Director of Lanka Salt I would be back for a meeting at 10.30 am. I was already running late. I had warned him that my return on time was contingent on the wildlife viewing in the park. I had warned him that a good leopard sighting might even have to result in a unilateral postponement. On the other hand the meeting with Terence was important. We were to discuss how facilities could be constructed at the salt pans in Palatupana to encourage bird watchers and other eco tourists. Reluctantly I decided to head back as in the grand scheme of things, meeting Terence and his staff at Palatupana was more important than a photo opportunity with the Leopard cubs.
Nearly four hours later, we returned. The female cub had crossed the road and vanished into the thorny thicket. The male cub had crossed the road and fallen asleep under a Maliththan tree, just over six feet from the side of the road. Occasionally he would wake up with a start, groom himself or attempt to bite ticks on his skin. Watching him were the current occupants of the Talgasmankada Bungalow. In a conspicuously noble gesture they pulled back to give us room to move into a very good viewing position. Shortly after they left for a very late lunch. It was a week day and we had him all to ourselves. People who argue that Yala is over visited base their opinion on visits during long weekends. Every country with national parks accessible to visitors experience this long week end rush. In many countries they have planned for this and have adequate infrastructure and resources to cope with the rush. In Yala, there is only chaos. Visitors can wait up to an hour for tickets to be issued and tempers are already frayed at the point of entering. There is no effort made to divert visitors to nature trails, bird hides or audio visual shows. Everybody enters the park, in a slow convoy, in a plume of dust. In contrast, an off peak mid weekday, is a joy. After an hour of sleeping in fits and starts KBMC1 stood up and walked away.
A pair of Yellow-wattled Lapwings uttered nervous sounding contact calls and peered at us with beady eyes A female peafowl strutted by. A whisper of a breeze tried in vain to stir the dead and drying leaves.
We set off on a loop along Talgasmankada Road to Handunoruwa Wewa, along the main road and back to Gonalabbe Meda Para. The Blue-tailed Bee-eaters which had been confirmed as breeding were not in sight. A Sirkeer Malkoha distracted us as it foraged in a grassy clearing. Its behaviour is of a ground dwelling bird, unlike the other Malkohas found in Sri Lanka which are largely arboreal.
At Handunoruwa Wewa, over thirty crocodiles were clustered in close vicinity of the drying waterhole. Diganwala, another waterhole held a cluster of waterbirds as usual. An Oriental Darter swam furtively in the shallows, its neck and head sticking out like a snake. A pair of White-throated Kingfishers were raising a brood on the far bank.
A pleasant hour or more rolled by, the passage of time barely being felt. Returning to where the cubs had last been seen, we slowed down and examined the thorn scrub thickets. Leopard called out Priyantha again. Razor sharp eyes had been attenuated by countless game drives. We strained our eyes to make out the male cub seated at the back of a thicket of Kukurumana. We settled down to watch and were joined by another two jeeps. The male cub crossed over to a tree and sat down. Suddenly, a convoy of four jeeps pulled up. Doors opened, heads popped out, video cameras rolled and conversation was shouted across from jeep to jeep. Priyantha muttered darkly that any jeep driver who behaved that badly would be grounded for a few days by the warden. Much of this shortcoming in behaviour is simply a lack of awareness rather than malicious misconduct. Most people who are new to wildlife are too excited at a leopard sighting to realise that the quiet discreet behaviour maximises the chances of keeping the leopard for longer and enhancing the viewing pleasure for all. KBFC1 was remarkably tolerant. This degree of tolerance is seldom seen in mature adults.
The male cub retreated across the road and disappeared from view. A small family of Spotted Deer ran away. A stag endowed with a fine pair of antlers faced the scrub with his back to a grassy clearing and barked an alarm call. We watched and waited. The agitated deer continued to call for at least five minutes and then suddenly sprang away. Before long the male and female cub slipped through the scrub, moving noiselessly. Those who were familiar with the cubs guessed that the mother was not far away. According to Ravi Samarasinha, the mother is TF1 or Talgasmankada Female No 1. The same mother who reared GMC 5 (Gonalabbe Meda Para Cub No 5) who was last year’s super star in the park. Now almost a year later, I was with her next litter in another encounter to make the pages of LMD. Before long the cubs ran to the right and greeted the mother who escorted them away. Long live TF1.
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 email@example.com with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.