The silent spirit of the dawn mist

Legend has it that the Leopard is a spirit of the mist drifting in with the dawn winds, sent by the Gods to snatch the sacrifice for nature’s deliverance of a promising new day. In truth, its 5.45 AM on a cool December morning, and a Pearl Team (Danushka, Shanaka, Nilu and Ruwan) creeps out into the fog, in search of Lanka’s princess of the wilderness. The place is Mahaseelava, in Yala National Park, Tissahamaharama.

We had spent the night at the park bungalow, and were woken up earlier at around 4.00 AM by the loud alarm calls of the friendly deer who patronize the environs of the bungalow. We had our suspicions, that a prowling predator had spooked them.

No sooner we rolled into the dirt road, we see a leopard, the princess of the Lankan wilderness, gliding across the road, taking cover in the morning gloom!

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An unspeakable feeling of awe and reverence comes to mind, when one encounters this shy, magnificent creature. We decided to try and follow her (for it was a mature female), shadowing her slowly and at a respectful distance. She disappeared into the thicket on the opposite side of the road, so we went a short distance ahead and stopped near an open meadow adjoining a water hole. We had our hopes high, that she would amble along. We weren’t disappointed! In a few minutes, she emerged from the thicket, like a shadowy ghost.

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She continued towards the water-hole, which was little more than a large, muddy puddle, and sat down for a sip! She seemed quite thirsty, gulping down water for a full minute, giving us the opportunity to observe her closely.

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There appeared to be an opacity in her left eye. This disability, the size of her feet, and her slightly gaunt appearance in spite of a seemingly ample supply of food and water (deer are plentiful at this time of the year at Yala), was suggestive of advanced age. At this point we thought it was time to move on, and we bid a silent adieu to our spotted friend.

Leopards are the most illusive of the big cats, and of crepuscular nature, getting active at dawn and dusk. The usual midday behaviour of the Sri Lankan Leopard, Panthera pardus kotiya (or simply “Kotiya”), is to lounge on a convenient branch of a stout tree. The below specimen was snapped  the same day at noon, several kilometres down Buthawa Wewa Road.

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This was a young male, alert to the sounds of wild boar foraging nearby. It appeared to be mating season for some of the cats, evident from the low growls echoing across the woods. Actually, the leopard’s mating call sounds more like a wooden plank being sawed by a blunt instrument, than a growl, and can be heard for miles. We were lucky enough to spot a courting pair during our excursion, but they were to far away to be photographed preserving any reasonable detail.

Another superb location for spotting leopards in photogenic posture is at “Kotiya Gala” (Leopard Rock), a small rocky outcrop just on the side of the road close to the Park Gate. This creature was photographed the previous evening, close to 6.00 PM in rapidly fading light.

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Experts in the evolution of cats, who piece together clues from mitochondrial DNA and fossil records of the pleistocene, tell us that leopards have been around as long as our own prehistoric ancestors such as the australopithecines. In fact, something resembling the Clouded Leopard first emerged around two million years ago, before the divergence of lions and other wild cats. The modern leopard radiated from East Africa around 300,000 years ago, reaching far-off places like Sri Lanka and even the United Kingdom. Sadly, they went extinct in Europe about 24,000 years ago.

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In Sri Lanka, an alarmingly small population of a mere 1,000 or so of these big cats remain, largely restricted to Yala and Wilpattu National Parks. The  above animal was contemplating the aggression of a wild boar, in Karaugas Wala, the previous evening. The relationship with the wild boar is a deceptive one, where the leopard will usually run away from a charging boar, to avoid fatal injury. Whilst the leopard is shy of frontal attack on wild boars, they have been seen sneaking up on boars at night. Asphyxiation is the method of dispatching such a large pray, by clinging on to the nose and mouth. Unlike the lion, the leopard is not noted for breaking the cervical vertebrae of large pray, perhaps lacking the strength for it.

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Leopards are in some sense arboreal creatures. As can be seen above, they simply love staying up in trees, camouflaged by the lush greenery. In Yala, Maliththan seems to be a favourite of theirs. The instinct to climb may have evolved initially in the East African plains, where avoidance of other larger, non-arboreal predators such hyenas would have been a selective force. Trees also provide the perfect camouflage for having a undisturbed meal, away from scavenging creatures like jackals and crows.

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Our brief excursion into Yala ended in a couple of days, and we left the park pondering the fate of this beautiful denizen of the Lankan wilderness. Strict conservation measures are in effect. Are the current measures sufficient? We observed that some visitors to the park were over-eager to see some action, and didn’t respect the sanctity of the environment. Making noises and disturbing animals who are resting, offering food and enticing animals into the open, and being too eager to see leopards and driving recklessly are some of the problems inherent to the high-volume ecotourism at Yala. One hopes that the Wildlife Conservation Department would keep a close eye on these issues.

Story | Ruwan Rajapakse
Photography | Ruwan Rajapakse (leopard crossing the road, walking into the meadow, on the branch at noon, up close), Danushka Senadheera (leopard on Kotiya Gala, contemplating boars, amongst the lush greenery, featured image in blog), Nilu Rajapakse (leopard sipping water)

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