I remember the first time I saw a leopard in Sri Lanka. It was about 2 a.m. and we were at the Heenwewa bungalow in Yala. We were woken up by a noise that sounded like all hell had broken loose. We were still trying to decipher what the noise was when my father’s torch picked up the silhouette of a leopard. Temporarily annoyed by the torch it sat down and watched us for a while, after about 5 minutes it got up and calmly walked past and disappeared into the jungle behind the bungalow. I was mesmerized, as here was one of the most elusive cats calmly and confidently walking past us. I grew up in Kenya and was used to seeing big cats, but in my ten years there I saw only 2 leopards.
This cat has made Sri Lanka its home. With no other large predator, it’s the apex predator of the Island. With the knowledge that it is king it walks bravely. In protected areas this once thought to be nocturnal cat, walks freely during the daytime. Sri Lanka is probably the best place to see this enigmatic cat in the daytime. The Sri Lankan Leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), one of the 8 subspecies of leopards in the world, can be found in areas ranging from the wet zone, to the montaine highlands, to the dry zone forests.
Yala National Park and Wilpattu National Park started out as shooting ranges for the “sportsman” hunters, and have thus had the longest protection. It’s here that leopards are most often seen. Before Wilpattu was closed due to terrorism, this was the place to go to see the leopard. It was only in the last 10 years that Yala became the leopard Mecca that it is now. During the early years we were happy with leopard “crossings”. Thanks to some careful handling, leopards have got used to vehicles and now Yala has become a circus. As we got tired of the wildlife experience in Yala we looked for other parks, and in 2004 our prayers were answered when the fabled Wilpattu was reopened thanks to a dedicated warden W. Pushpananda. For the first year of almost monthly visits we saw nothing. Pug marks indicated there were leopards, but traumatized by poaching and war, they chose to be nocturnal. Yet slowly the sightings picked up. But Wilpattu is no Yala. The distances along with the terrain makes leopard spotting difficult. With no mobile phone coverage, you have to work hard for your sightings and have to actually track the leopards. Sandy roads ensure that only those with working 4-wheel-drive can visit.
Long periods of visiting Yala had ensured that we saw leopards grow up, establish territories and have cubs of their own. But how were we to know that we were seeing the same leopards or different ones? Studies during the 1970s in Africa had concluded that it was possible to identify lions from the individual spots near their nose. They say a leopard can’t change its spots and that’s a good thing for researchers. In the 1990s the Late Dr. Ravi Samarsinghe started the first proper identification of leopards in Yala. Based on the individual spot patterns that no two leopards share, we were able to tell them apart. Ravi and I were friends and over many an evening in the jungle we discussed the identification of leopards. We learned to look for unique patterns and shapes, and in our own small way we learned to distinguish them, identify their home ranges, and see their cubs as young adults establishing their own ranges. As wildlife photographers we were at an advantage, as we have photographic evidence that we could compare to see if it was an old friend or a new leopard. We are now able to tell apart the most often seen leopards without having to look up our notes. Every time we see a leopard we instinctively ask ourselves, “is it a new one”?
Naming them has always been an issue. It would be easy to call them human names or after physical traits such “eyeone”, “nata”, “kinked tail” “half ear”. Ravi was a researcher at heart and his naming convention was practical and more impersonal. He named it after the location where it was first seen, the gender and finally a sequence number from that area. So BorupanM1 would indicate first seen at Borupan, M would indicate it’s a male and 1 would indicate the first male seen there.
I don’t claim to be researcher, nor do I claim that our sightings include all the leopards of Wilpattu. It doesn’t cover the entire park, as my area of observation is restricted to the main areas allowed for visitation. Over a period of 4 years, I have 20 different leopards identified. I know of at least another 10-15 that I have not yet seen, or have no photographic evidence to prove it. My unofficial study is only for me and my wife to know which leopard is which. It helps us establishes their home ranges, and keep track of cubs as they mature and disperse from their natal area. It’s no more than a database of leopards that we have seen, nothing more or nothing less.
There are possibly 30-35 leopards in the core area of Wilpattu. You might assume all is well for the leopard these days. Sadly this is not the case. Predator population is determined by the prey population. The spotted deer is the main stay prey of the leopards, but it’s also the main target of poaching. Underfunded, under staffed and even out gunned the Department of Wildlife Conservation is destined to fail. With this knowledge and with possible patronage from locally influential persons, poachers appear to have increased not only in the periphery but also in the core area. Evidence of poaching has been found near bungalows, and human foot prints are all over the park. Leopards are not their main target, but as deer population declines so will the leopards. Poachers are not averse to killing a leopard if the opportunity presents itself. With increased illegal human activity and decreased food supply, leopards will once again become nocturnal or simply reduce in numbers. With that you can forget about one of the pillars of tourism that is being heavily advertised abroad. People don’t only want to see trees and peacocks, they want to see enigmatic animals like leopards as well. If we are not careful the leopard will simply just disappear into the night.
Story | Namal Kamalgoda*
Photography | Namal Kamalgoda
* The author is part of zero3 images and has published three coffee table books on Sri Lanka’s Wildlife. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org