Scenes from Yala National Park – The last bastion of the Leopards of Asia

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Yala National Park is famous for its Leopards. It is said to have the highest concentration of these magnificent big cats (Panthera pardus kotiya, pop 18/100km2) in the whole world. But let us begin this photojournalistic essay by saying that Yala is more than just a hangout for leopards; it is a wonderfully complex ecosystem that is home to many thousands of species of plants and animals including 44 species of mammals, 46 endemic species of reptiles and 215 species of birds including six endemics.

Yala is laced with a complex system of shallow lakes interconnected by underground waterways, known locally as “Villus”, that run dry during the extreme droughts that plague the region every few years. The Salt Water Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) is a popular denizen of these water bodies.

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A favourite pray of both these formidable predators is the beautiful Axis Deer (Axis axis), found in abundance in recent years due to the unfailing monsoon rainfall that Yala has benefitted from.

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Yala is home to some strange and exotic birds, such as the Hoopoe (Upupa epops ceylonensis) whose name gained notoriety through Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

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Another unusual bird found at Yala is the Plover (Charadrius dubius), a wader, who is seen below with one leg retracted, presumably to strike out at small creatures in the sand that it would consider as pray.

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Water birds such as Egrets, Stalks and even Flamingos are commonplace at Yala and its surroundings such as the Bundala and Kumana National Parks. Consider for example the Yellow Wattled Lapwing, a rarer deviant of the notorious Red Wattled Lapwing (Vanellus malabaricus) or “did-you-do-it bird” (so called because of its cry), photographed below at Yala’s eastern coastline.

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Predatory birds such as the Black-winged Kite (Elanus caeruleus, see below) stalk the skies above. There are many other fearsome predatory birds at Yala, such as the Crested Hawk-eagle, the Serpent Eagle and the Fishing Eagle.

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Yala is of course famous for its old-world monkeys, such as the Tufted Gray Langur (Semnopithecus priam) who journeys together in large bands, and are often seen mobbing leopards and other predatory creatures.

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No portrait of Yala would be complete without the Sri Lankan Elephant (Elephas maximus maximus), who is found freely wherever there is vegetation to strip down. Here is a baby having a nice meal of roots.

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One of the hardest creatures to spot at Yala is the Sloth Bear (Melursus ursinus), except during the “Palu Season” – a brief period of the year when a fragrant fruit called Palu ripens. The bears comes out of hiding to eat these berries. The Sloth Bear appears a cute and docile creature, but be warned; the adult males are known to defeat leopards handsomely in face to face combat, usually driving them out of their territories.

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So let us return to the Leopard, the king of the beasts (at least in elegance if not in brawn) at Yala. The best time to spot leopards is at dusk, 5.45 PM ~ 6.30 PM. They are known to cross the pathways through the park at this time. If you are very lucky, you could catch them climbing rocky outcrops for an evening tan, or perhaps for the warmth from the rocks that gather heat during the day.

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Yala National Park and its surroundings are a pristine wilderness that must be preserved at all costs as a global heritage site, if there is to be any hope for us humanity to progress as a civilised, intelligent and responsible species on this planet.

Story | Ruwan Rajapakse
Photography | Danushka Senadheera (Sloth Bear), Ruwan Rajapakse (Leopard 1, Crocodile, Hoopoe, Black-winged Kite), Nilu Rajapakse (Leopard 2, Elephant, Lapwing, Deer, Monkey, Plover)

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