Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne Yala


Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne Yala

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2010). The un-fazed leopard and the two-legged rude species. The Sunday Times Plus. Sunday 14 February 2010. Features. Page 4.
Watching leopards in Yala and a commentary on how habituated the leopards in Yala have become.

Thursday 14 January 2010. Yala. Naturalist Guide Sam Caseer and I were rotating between the jeeps and it was my turn to be with David Gerard and his son Jock and his friend Wills. As David was becoming interested in birds I began to call off the names from left to right in an ephemeral freshwater pool on the Buttuwa Plains. Behind us was Akasa Chaitya and Elephant Rock. I called out the names of the birds from left to right. “Little Egret, Spoonbill, Painted Stork, Little Cormorant, Large Egret, Red-wattled Lapwing, Marsh Sandpiper, Indian Pond Heron, Intermediate Egret, Blue-tailed Bee-eaters and Barn Swallows in the air and Indian Peafowl”. The list alone does not capture the spirit of the place. The waterbirds were a stone’s throw away from us. The Painted Stork was looking gorgeous in pink. Yala National Park was fresh and green. The sun was climbing high but veiled by a thin cloud, so the light was not harsh. The diversity of birds, the closeness of them and the fresh foliage in the park all combined to create a certain spirit of the place. Drinking all of this in through the optical quality of a Swarowski binoculars, David was overwhelmed.

I explained why I think Yala is arguably the finest National Park in Asia. Only the core zone of Corbett National park in Northern India could possibly compete with the number of species of mammals one can see on a game drive. Yesterday, as I had written in a previous issue of my journal, we had encountered a tusker, a leopard and a sloth bear all in the space of forty five minutes.

We were now taking in the birds on the Buttuwa Plains. In front of us were freshwater birds. On the other side of the jeep were estuarine and dry open country birds. Lesser Sand Plover, Kentish Plover, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Ashy-crowned Finch-lark, etc foraged on the ground. Over the plains carried the song of an airborne male Oriental Skylark wooing a mate.

There was time to take in the birds as we had spent over an hour at a leopard sighting. We had come across a group of jeeps that were at the Boraluwala on the main road. I had been told about a leopard here. I found what I would guess to be a male probably between 12 to 15 months old. The eyes still looked disproportionately large. It was atop a rock that that was about thirty feet away. It was remarkably relaxed and dozed off despite several jeeps that jostled for a good viewing position.

The sighting demonstrated one of my arguments that people are more concerned by the presence of other jeeps that the leopards themselves provided the people do not engage in any intimidating or threatening behavior. Lal who was at the wheel pulled up with three jeeps between us and the leopard. We maneuvered into a gap and I slung my Canon 600mm f4 on the roof and began to take photographs. Meanwhile the leopard was tolerant of all the jostling that was taking place closer to it. I was quite surprised when a tracker asked me to take my lens inside the jeep. I complied because I realised he was trying to pre-empt people in the other jeeps clambering to the roof to take a look. I was not annoyed about the tracker’s request but what happened later did annoy me.

After a while most of the jeeps dispersed and I was left shooting through a parked jeep. Another jeep pulled in to the gap completely blocking our view in a show of very bad manners. As the two tourists in it were using small compact cameras we waited patiently expecting them to leave in a few minutes. Half an hour later, with no pressure from us they packed away their cameras. The first jeep that was closest to the leopard pulled away and we took its place only to receive a sarcastic question from the jeep that had blocked us whether we now had a good view. We politely said yes, but David and I both exchanged some strong words about the visitor under our breath.

The leopard seemed unaffected by the bad manners of visitors and was intermittently dozing off. Another jeep arrived and Lal pulled out to make room and just in time too as the leopard got up from the rock that was now in the sun and walked off.

Having had our fill of leopard we drove around pausing here and there to take in the views and bird life at a relaxed pace. Heading back along the main road near Patanangala we came across a jeep watching another leopard cub at around sixty feet away perched on the crotch of a low branching Palu Tree. It did not stay long, I suspect it was disturbed by voices carrying across.

I asked Lal to position the jeep on the main road to allow me to take a tripod mounted shot along the axis of the main road which was partially obscured by two jeeps that were parked ahead of us. Just as I had anticipated the cub walked across a grassy meadow and came to the edge of the road and paused to look at the jeep. “Click” I had it exactly where I had anticipated and I could not help feeling so smug with myself. It crossed briskly and was gone.

David’s group of Australians headed for the pool whilst Sam and I took a quick walk around the Yala Village Hotel.  The lake in front had Oriental Darter, Common Sandpiper, Greenshank, etc. I could easily spend a day in the Yala Village hotel grounds photographing birds. A species of blue butterfly, a Royal briefly alighted. But it was gone before I could photograph it to identify it. In the park I had noticed large numbers of Peirid butterflies in the mud puddles. There was an abundance of beautiful blue Wanderers, brightly colored Yellow Orangetips and White Orange-tips. Lemon Pansy, Lime Butterfly and several other species were in flight.

Having checked out of the hotel we visited the Palatupana Salt Pans. There were easily one to two thousand waders there. The highlight was a single Broad-billed Sandpiper seen at close range. Other waders included Marsh, Curlew, Common Sandpiper, Redshank, Grey, Golden Kentish and Lesser Sand Plovers, Black-winged Stilts, Black-tailed Godwit, Little Stint, etc.