With birds, only a few well-known families such as owls and nightjars are nocturnal. In the case of mammals the situation is the reverse. The majority of mammal families has members that are active at night, not just the bats where all members of the family are active at night. Even species that are commonly seen during the day such as deer and elephants are nocturnal. With some species such as leopards it is the cubs and subadults that are typically seen during the day; the adults hunt at night when their prey is more active. Knowing that mum will be bringing them food, young leopards can hang out during the day showboating in front of the admiring photographers. Some mammals are not adapted at all for a nocturnal existence. Diurnal primates such as humans, Toque Monkeys and Hanuman Langurs are a good example.
I was staying at Jetwing Safari Camp Yala with my family and I was keen to go on a night drive to see nocturnal mammals. Night safaris are nothing new to me. As president of the school’s natural history society, I remember taking a group of schoolboys on foot in Horton Plains to look for nocturnal mammals. The biting cold and the tension that leopards were abroad made these night walks exciting. Since the declaration of Horton Plains as a national park, night walks are no longer permitted. It was only in the early 2000s, that I truly understood how to make night safaris successful. I listened to Professor Anna Nekaris delivering a lecture for the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society in Colombo. I learnt that nocturnal mammals are not sensitive to red light and a low power torch with a red filter held over the eyes makes a dramatic difference to seeing nocturnal mammals. I went out in the field with her to look for the Grey Slender Loris in Sri Lanka’s dry zone and learnt the right technique. Since then I have trained a number of Sri Lanka’s professional naturalists in the technique and during a period when I worked in Sri Lanka, helped to introduce responsible night safaris.
In Sri Lanka, unlike in some of the game reserves in the southern half of Africa, there is no practice of night safaris within national parks. Any night safaris have to be taken on private land or on public roads. Furthermore, on public roads which run past national parks and reserves, spotlighting is not allowed. This probably is not a bad thing as I can see people who do not understand nocturnal mammal watching, dazzling animals with powerful white lights. For our night safari we chose to drive from Jetwing Yala towards Cinnamon Yala, another of the top-end game lodges outside the park. Driving our vehicle was Lenin, who had been trained by another company- Tea Trails, on how to handle night drives in a responsible and ethical manner to minimise disturbance to nocturnal mammals. We stopped at a small concrete pond as we saw an Antelope Rat or Gerbil run into a burrow. We slowly pulled over to the side and dimmed the lights and watched the area. Much to our surprise, a lot of Gerbils were moving around and it made me realise how important a food source they are for smaller carnivores that are around. I was working on a photographic guide to the mammals of Sri Lanka. Although I am generally loathe to fire a flashgun at nocturnal mammals, since Gerbils are so common and so used to being caught in the glare of vehicle headlights, I tilted a flashgun head to the side to avoid firing directly and took a few photographs. Gerbils are widespread in the dry lowlands in Sri Lanka. They are rodents, but distinctly different to rats and mice by having elongated rear legs which they can use to hop if needed rather than scurrying on all four legs. Their tails are not naked; they have hair and the tip of the tail has a tuft of hair. They are found all the way from Iran to across peninsular India to Sri Lanka. I enjoyed watching the Gerbils go about their business. In India, the Desert Gerbil which is a diurnal species, is also found.
We drove on slowly passing Spotted Deer and Sambar, the latter being the largest deer found in the island. We did not pause as there was no need to disturb mammals we could easily observe during the day. We also noticed a few Black-naped Hare. The subspecies found in Sri Lanka is considered endemic. After getting back on to the main road, Lenin gently pulled over to the side and dimmed the lights as the headlights had caught some eyeshine. Ahead of us was a Ring-tailed Civet also known as the Small Indian Civet. To our left was a large Porcupine which scurried away. The civet was hunting freshy emerged termites on the road. A few hours earlier it had poured with unseasonal rain. I have often noticed that termites emerge soon after heavy rain. The civet we were watching was joined by two more civets. With the headlights dimmed and the engine switched off the civets were comfortable with the vehicle and continued to hunt around us, at times approaching quite close to the vehicle.
It had become quite late and there were hardly any vehicles using the road. Sensing that Jungle Cat could be a possibility I suggested we drive further on the tarmacked main road. At a distance we saw an eyeshine on the middle of the road; it was more reddish than the green from the civets. Lenin expertly cut the engine and with the headlights dimmed allowed the vehicle to coast silently towards the eyeshine. I used my binoculars as even ordinary optics amplify available light from a brighter image than with the naked eye. I could make out a Jungle Cat also out hunting termites on the middle of the road. Soon it was joined by another, and we observed two for a short while before the latter moved back into the scrub that was bordering the road. The Jungle Cat is a beautiful animal with pointy ears, larger than a domestic cat and with stripes on its legs. Not wishing to disturb it and spoil the amazing encounter we were having, I did not attempt to take any photographs, especially mindful that the flash would send it scurrying away. I already had a lot of images which I could use for my book. The Jungle Cat was in fact a species I wanted to photograph for my book. On the day I flew into Colombo, I had made a visit to the zoo in Colombo to photograph one in captivity. The images accompanying this article are pictures taken during the day of the animal in the zoo.
We spent over half an hour watching the Jungle Cat. It approached closer and closer until it was about ten feet away from the vehicle. Someone adjusted their position and a creak from the seat sent it scurrying back further down the road. I drank in those moments when it was hunting close to the vehicle and I was watching it through the binoculars. As we had an early morning game drive planned for the next day, we started off and gingerly moved ahead to turn around. On our way back we slowly drove past the Jungle Cat and stopped briefly to allow a hunting Common Palm Civet walk past us. Its face has contrasting black and white stripes so typical of nocturnal mammals. On a recent visit to Zambia, I noticed how it was routine practice to undertake a night safari in the evening with the driver or an assistant using a powerful spotlight with white light. Mammals including leopards, seemed to be used to it and seemed totally unfazed by it. Nevertheless, I could not help feeling that it was an intrusion and I never felt comfortable with it and was always happier to tell the driver to move on. In Sri Lanka, I would not advocate that night safaris are established for the mass tourism market. However, for serious mammal enthusiasts who are responsible and who are prepared to forego photography and just enjoy watching the animals, a night drive even on a public road running past scrub forest can yield some rewarding mammal watching.