There had been sightings of three tiny leopard cubs at Rukwila, outside of a cave on the Patanangala rock by a jeep driver who visits the park frequently with tourists. This message went to many keen wild life enthusiasts including me. I was at the park on 30th September 2010 early morning and we were at Rukwila by 6am. We positioned the vehicle so that we had a view of the cave entrance through the foliage, but it was at a distance of about 200 meters. According to our tracker, the mother leopard comes to the cave between 6 and 7 am to feed the cubs, but doesn’t stay for very long after feeding the cubs.
The tracker was right! The mother was sighted moving closer to the area near the cave from the right side of the Patanangala rock at 6.15 am and suddenly the new arrivals at Yala, came to our sight. The cute little cubs came out of the cave and started playing among themselves and later with the mother. There were three cubs, and in my view they were not more than five weeks old. The mother was with the cubs for about 10 minutes and disappeared from our sight. The day was cool and the sky was cloudy. We expected the mother to come back again soon since it did not feed the cubs and it did return at around 7am. It was very interesting to see the cubs interacting with the mother and affection that the adult female had for its offspring. Later, the mother allowed the cubs to suckle on her. The location was too far to get well-focused images but with the Nikon 400 mm telephoto lens, F 2.8 and 1.5 converter, I was able to get some good images. We were at this location till 9 am when the mother moved into the cave and disappeared from our sight.
Generally, female leopards have litters of one or two cubs after a gestation of about 100 days, but having three cubs is quite unusual, especially at Yala. The cubs are confined to one location until they are two to three months old. Cubs are weaned at about three months of age and when they are four months, the mother takes them for hunting. On average a male leopard would hunt for a meal every three days but a female with cubs will need a kill every other day. The cubs stay with the mother until they are 18 months to 2 years of age, when they will find their own territory. The female leopard reaches sexual maturity at about 2 years and a male at around 2 to 3 years. Leopards are solitary animals and the only time that they come together with another adult is to mate. There had been sightings of leopards mating in the recent past at Yala, which is promising for the prospects of an increasing leopard population at the park.
We went to the same location that afternoon by 3 pm. There was a drizzle of rain in the early afternoon which restricted the movement of the leopard family. Through powerful binoculars, we could catch a glimpse of the cubs at times, inside the cave. Later, for our fortune the rain ceased. We were then able to observe the cubs outside the cave again. It appeared that the mother was still inside the cave. We were there till 5. 30 pm, and the same evening we returned to Colombo.
This was indeed a rare opportunity for wild life enthusiasts and photographers to sight leopard cubs at such a tender age. They normally stay hidden from prying eyes until they are a few months old.