My wife and I sighted seven leopards and one cub (4 months old by guess) during this trip to the park and I was lucky to capture a few good images of four leopards of which two are males. One male was spotted on a rock on the Jamburagala-Gonagala Road at about 8 am one morning and it jumped from rock to rock for it to get to the ground, and I was able to capture this magnificent cat on my camera when the animal was airborne.
Prior to the Nineties, visitors to YNP mainly concentrated on elephants, and one had to be very lucky to even have a glimpse of a leopard. Most visitors would go to the famous rock named ‘Kotigala’ at YNP where occasionally the leopard would lie in the early morning or late evening. Even today leopards are often spotted on this rock and we were fortunate to see one on this trip, early one morning at 5.45 am. Even the sloth bear is more often spotted today than in the 1960’s.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a predator is an animal that hunts and kills others for food. Most large predators are usually carnivores, including animals of the cat family, such as the lion, cheetah, tiger and leopard. In Sri Lanka, the leopard is the only large cat endemic to the country, living in the wild, and it is classified as an endangered species due to the small numbers that have survived from the British colonial period, when British trophy hunters would mercilessly kill these beautiful cats for pleasure. Due to loss of habitat from deforestation and due to poaching, the leopard population in Sri Lanka continued to dwindle. But conservation programs and better policing has helped and in recent times, there are signs that the leopard numbers are beginning to recover.
The Gonalebbe Middle Road known as “Mada Para” at YNP is an area where there is a high probability of spotting leopards. One morning in August 2009 at around 6.45 am, when driving along this road and after passing the turn to Akasa Chaitya Road, my wife Lilani, excitedly shouted, “Stop! Stop! There! There! Leopard!” She was pointing towards some foliage by the road side while holding her video camera in her free hand. There was indeed a leopard there. But it was sad to see that the animal had lost one eye. According to the tracker, this male leopard has had this injury for some time and it may have been due to a fight with another leopard. The left eye was fully covered with skin and the wound had still not healed.
We were there for almost 20 minutes observing the injured animal as it was not disturbed by our presence. It was using the front paw to scratch the injured area, which may have been causing further damage. The injury was obviously causing a great deal of discomfort to the big cat.
Within two months of this visit, I was at Yala again in October. While on an afternoon drive inside the park, I had covered most of the water holes without success and had got on to the ‘Mada Para’. Taking the turn to Akasa Chaitya Road, there were two vehicles parked near a water hole. On inquiry we were told that a leopard had crossed the road and gone in to the forest and they were waiting in anticipation of a re-appearance. We also saw a carcass of a spotted deer killed by the leopard, lying inside the bushes. We waited till 5.30 pm hoping that the leopard would come back to feed on the kill. But there was no sign of it. We had to leave the park at that time to return to our bungalow located outside the park.
On the following day, at 5.40 am, we entered the park and made a bee line to the spot where we had seen the carcass of the deer! While approaching the area where the kill was, I saw a leopard through the bushes lying on the far side of the bund of the water hole. The tracker said that is was the same one-eyed leopard we had seen a few months back. Within a few minutes, the leopard went near the kill and started feeding on it. We were there for almost 30 minutes and left the spot, when the leopard disappeared from our sight.
On closer scrutiny of the images taken of this leopard two months earlier compared to the ones taken afterwards, I observed that the wound had not healed but instead a larger area of the skin was now exposed, together with a part of the eye ball. It was quite remarkable that this leopard could still hunt a large prey for food and was able to survive with one eye!
Most of my visits to Yala were on weekdays, but this visit to the park was on a weekend. This weekend was special to me since my birthday which is on September 6th, fell on a Sunday. I prefer to be close to nature, in the wild where I am the happiest and therefore chose to celebrate my birthday at Yala. Lilani and I were in park from that Friday which was also a holiday as it was a full moon poya day. But YNP was extremely crowded that long weekend, with a record number of visitors and there were very few sightings reported.
We decided not go to the park on the 5th September, but stayed in our newly built holiday home in the outskirts of the park, which we have named the Yala Leopard Lodge. I hoped that there would be a lesser crowd inside the park on Sunday the 6th as most of the visitors would be returning home that day. We went to the park early in the morning. Driving towards Heenwewa area, we were informed by some people in another jeep that they heard of a leopard sighting near Palugaswala. We quickly turned around and drove back towards Palugaswala. Our tracker managed to sight a leopard, far inside the bushes on the Siyambalagaswala road near Palugaswala and we drove in that direction, assuming that the leopard will move on to the water hole there to drink water. While at the Palugaswala we saw another leopard approaching the far end of the water hole from a different direction and we were lucky to see it drinking water. We also saw two Sea Eagles at the same spot. We later visited other water holes including a few man-made ones, of which five were built at my cost. These water holes will be a life saver to animals during the dry season.