Yala National Park in Sri Lanka was trying to keep quiet about a mother leopard and her three cubs, but word had leaked from one jeep driver to another, one naturalist guide to another and from one photographer to another. By the beginning of October many knew where the mother’s den was. Those lucky enough to arrive first had a narrow view of the den and might capture a good shot of the mom and cubs. But attaining this one viewing spot in front of the den led to some jostling for position thus blocking anyone else from seeing the den. This was what we found when we arrived at the park, by 6:15 am on 9th October 2010.
We were a small group with mixed interests birds, butterflies, reptiles, dragonflies and mammals. I was accompanied by expert guide Wicky Wickramasekara, of Jetwing Eco Holidays, Dan and Rosie Powell from UK and Andrew and Denise Qualtrough from Isle of Mann; we were interested in just a glimpse of the mom and cubs. We arrived to find the road blocked by four vehicles, two with views and two with one spot where they might take turns to see a bit of the opening to the den. Other jeeps had arrived and no one was going budge, it was like a Colombo traffic jam at rush hour. We found that to get a quick peek at the den, with or without a leopard was not possible. A bit put off, we left to see if we might find leopards elsewhere and enjoy birds and other interesting sights that Yala usually has to offer.
A crested hawk eagle was finishing off a spotted deer carcass as we drove toward a muddy tank where we found crocodiles basking on the banks, waders sieving and storks probing for food; this was a good time for us to feed on our breakfast with binoculars in one hand and a sandwich in the other. Through the cell phone grape vine we knew that mom and cubs had not appeared to those fortunate few in front of the den. With this in mind we decided to take a chance and visit the den one more time; maybe someone would let us a steal a look at the cave.
Nothing had changed; several huge camera lenses were still poised to catch the mom and cubs and we were still not allowed to even peek through the open bars on the main jeep cemented in place bye three other jeeps. The road was a loop with one-way traffic so we backed out and decided to try a different tactic. We drove around and entered from the back side where there was a solid rock behind the den. It was hard to say whose tongue unrolled first to say, “look there she is”. The mother leopard was on the slab of grey rock above and behind her den. She was looking away from us toward the rocks above the den and maybe at the camera crew stationed there. Our cameras and binoculars were tracking her and there was no one else around – just us. We sat for 10 minutes or so before the first little head appeared from a clump of boulders above the den.
Yes, it was exciting no doubt about that. I had a 300mm lens that was barely adequate for the distance but good enough. The others had fixed lens cameras that could zoom out to get fine shots. Every time a new scene unfolded some one would say get that shot. Eventually all three cubs were on the rocks and it was becoming clear that the mother wanted to move them. She was trying different tactics slowly coaxing, walking away from the den for them to follow, letting them suckle and again moving up the face of the rock slab. The cubs were unsure and frightened. They would follow then run back toward the den and hide under a stone overhang. Mom switched to force; she lifted one by the scruff of the neck. She called the other two to follow her. This worked for a short distance but again they would race to the shelter of stones behind the den. Eventually, possibly 30 minutes later all three cubs were behind her and they slowly made their way up the face the stone hill and disappeared over the top.
It was so riveting that we hardly noticed that another car and a jeep were situated beside us. The guardians of the den finally realized that the action was happening elsewhere and pulled up briefly in front of us blocking our view but only for a few minutes since there was space enough for everyone. It was thrilling and distressing at the same time to see them fade from view. What will happen to them now that they have moved on? The cubs are definitely vulnerable. Again using the cell phone grape vine we learned that no one else has seen them since they disappeared from the rock slab. The hope is that Yala’s leopard population is safe and thriving.