Looking for Leopards

Yala, one of Sri Lanka’s national wildlife parks

1 MARCH 2017,
A leopard in Yala Park, Sri Lanka
A leopard in Yala Park, Sri Lanka

4.45 am. Time to wake up. Groggily silencing the alarm, I brushed my hair off my face. I could hear sounds coming from the other tents; it seemed others at the campsite were also getting ready for a morning safari.

A short while later we were in the safari jeep speeding through the deserted roads and making our way towards Yala, one of Sri Lanka’s national wildlife parks. As we drove up to the entrance the sun was just starting to make its way above the treetops. The sky was a beautiful pink shot through with rays of orange, and the air was cool and crisp; the perfect start to the day. There was a sense of excitement and anticipation in the air. We spent some time driving around the park, scouring the shrubs and undergrowth for a tell-tale flash of a skulking leopard. As time passed the sun began to beat down on us. Reddish-brown dust clouds swirled in the wake of the jeep. The shrubbery merged into one indistinguishable mass of parched flora punctured by the occasional lizard and bird.

We stopped at a ‘villu’ (a water body) and gazed at the sunbathing crocodiles. A Painted Stork and a Black-headed Ibis waded around the villu, seemingly unperturbed by the crocodiles, as they foraged for food. The peaceful atmosphere was shattered by a deer’s alarm call. Instantly, we all sat up straight and intently scoured the surrounding area. There was nothing. We moved to another villu and stopped there, waiting, hoping for a leopard sighting.

Time passed. There was pin-drop silence in the jeep. Another alarm call. And then she saw it; the tip of a leopard’s tail lazily waving, almost obscured by a bush. We waited with bated breath. The leopard got up, stretched slowly and padded towards the water. A camera clicked furiously as we watched the leopard drink its fill and then contentedly lie down. I wondered whether we would be joined by another leopard, as we had been told that there were twins who frequented this area, but this was not to be. The leopard walked away from us, into the jungle, pausing momentarily before vanishing into its depths. Sometime later our jeep driver spotted a leopard on a tree (perhaps the same one we had seen earlier) but the dense forest cover and the position of the leopard meant that the leopard could only be seen with great difficulty and careful manoeuvring.

My sister had earned the title of ‘Expert Leopard Spotter’, a title my mother and I would share the next day; we were slowly driving along the winding paths when a deer darted in front of us and crossed over to the other side. My mother was sure this meant a leopard was in the vicinity; I then scanned the bushes and noticed a shadow and a suspiciously-spotted area. Given my past propensity to see leopards when there were none, I cautiously nudged my mother and whispered that I thought there may be a leopard. Before she could respond, the shadow moved and a leopard strolled out onto the road. It was a few feet in front of us and we could see it perfectly; the tawny fur dappled with dark rosettes and its sinewy body.

Yala is the best place in the world to see leopards but this isn’t all the park has to offer. On the drive back we saw a Serpent Eagle which added to the considerable list of birds we had seen that day. A troupe of monkeys gathered at the side of the road were unafraid of us and continued to chatter amongst themselves and pick fruits from trees, before skipping away.

Seeing animals like leopards, bears, elephants or even other smaller species in the wild is incredible. Travelling in a window-less vehicle allows you to feel part of the surroundings. On days when we have not had a sighting I have sometimes thought it was a waste of time but I now think that what makes a safari more special is the element of chance. There is no knowing or predicting when you will have a good sighting, or even a sighting at all. Yes, there are periods where you have a better chance of a sighting but this is not an exact science. Seeing a leopard was all the more exciting because I didn’t know if I would see one at our next safari. The sighting is memorable, but in hindsight, so is the search.