I was back at Yala on the afternoon of the 7th of October, hoping to see the leopard cubs again. At around 2.45 pm, we were at the spot where one could see the cave at a distance of about 200 meters from the vehicle. I was seated inside the vehicle while my driver and the guide were on their feet, looking in the direction of the cave through the trees and bushes, for a sighting of the cubs. They were alerted by a movement near the cave and we expected it to be the mother leopard. But to our shock and dismay, it turned out to be a human. We heard him talking to another, apparently at the bottom of the rock not visible to us. Later, he moved towards the far side of the Patanangala rock which faces the ocean and disappeared from our sight. I was able to capture an image of the intruder with a 550mm telephoto lens.
After deliberating amongst ourselves, we came to the conclusion that this man was from an Army detachment that had been stationed on the Patanangala beach as part of the security arrangements to deter attacks by the LTTE. While they did a great job of providing safety for visitors when the LTTE was active, with the annihilation of the terror group in May 2009 it was probably time to scale down the army presence inside the park. I forwarded the photo I took of the man near the leopard hideout to the Park Game Ranger who had passed it on to the Army Authorities.
We remained at the spot for some time, wondering whether the cubs had been moved to another location by the mother, as there was no sign of them. But at around 5.15 pm we were relieved to see the mother leopard, moving from the left side of the rock towards the cave. What a thrill, when the three cubs came out from the cave to greet the mother.
The following afternoon, we met the Game Ranger and he informed us that the Army had withdrawn its guard post near the Patanangala rock. But the next morning, when we were on our way back to Colombo, my regular tracker called to say that the cubs had been moved to another unknown location by the mother. It is very likely that the leopard sensed the presence of human intruders and was compelled to move her young for fear of their safety. It is a shame that a rare opportunity to observe 3 leopard cubs growing up in the protective care of their mother, had been denied to wild life enthusiasts like me.
Sri Lanka celebrated its 63rd Independence Day on the 4th of February 2011 when the government held its independence day celebrations at Kataragama, which is only about a half hour drive from the entrance to YNP. It was comforting to note during my visit to YNP on the afternoon of 3rd February 2011 that the presence of the Army inside the park had been scaled down considerably, enabling the animals to move freely inside the park covering a wider area than before.
There had been heavy downpours in the park in January, which was unusual for that time of the year. As there was plenty of water in the forest, the chance of sightings near water holes was slim. Leopards are either confined to their caves or would be on a tree. At Dharshana Wewa, we sighted a young leopard on a tree where I was able to take a picture with my Nikon D3 together with 400mm, 2.8 telephoto lens. We also sighted a male elephant moving towards us on the main road at the turn to Rakinawala. On our return via Jamburagala road, we also had a glimpse of a leopard on the road side, and it dashed into a thicket on seeing our jeep. Successful afternoon trip!
The following morning, I had a chance to witness the independence celebrations held at Kataragama, where I was able to take an image of a baby elephant saluting with his trunk His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa, the President of Sri Lanka. I recall a quote from the President’s address to the nation. “Winning freedom is a challenge faced by every nation. Safeguarding that freedom is an even greater challenge.” I believe this truism applies to the animal inhabitants of our nation too. It is the responsibility of the government officials appointed to positions within the sphere of wildlife protection and nature conservation, to safeguard the freedom of living beings at Yala and other National Parks in our Island nation.