Pugmarks in the sand (Yala for 31st - Part 4)

The morning run began as last afternoons with two jeeps. This time however we decided to use two trackers with Nana coming with us. The jeeps split apart as we started quartering the park again for any interesting sightings. First up was a couple of rounds down Gonalabe to see what had happened to the leopard cub. Unfortunately a number of other people had the same idea as us and we met more jeeps than wildlife on the road.

On a search for solitude we decided to head down the Akasachayitya sub-route, which is fairly out of the way from the usual haunts in block 1. After a few minutes spent at the Gallukuda Weva, where an extremely photogenic white necked stork kept us company, we headed towards Akasachayitya.

White Necked Stork

Two things sprung out at us as we traversed the road. One was the isolation, not another jeep in sight, though the tracks indicated at least one jeep had gone before us. The other thing was the white sand of the road. The jungle didn’t hide its secrets on this road and all the travelers, big and small, had left marks to show their passing.

We came across an interesting story in the sand with slipper prints and boot prints interspersed with the jeep tracks. Not succeeding in our attempts to interpret what had taken place we moved on to be greeted by the excitement of fresh leopard pug marks in the sand. At one spot where a stream crossed the road, the pug marks stood out and were obviously fresh. At least one big leopard had followed the road, stopped for a drink and then moved into the bush. As our cab moved ahead through the stream, the pug marks were obliterated by the backwash.

Pug Marks

The music played again when we could see the pug marks of another leopard, smaller this time, that had moved along the road as well and we were on full alert. There was an exciting moment as a small herd of deer by the side of the road spooked at something and broke away through the brush, but our luck was not holding. Despite the lack of a sighting, the almost sighting and tracking of the leopards via their spoor was as exciting as any full blown sighting. I would highly recommend this stretch of road to any visitors to the park simply for the experience, despite the thick brush making sightings tough. The feeling of isolation is also a rare commodity in the park these days and is well worth the extra drive.

Excited Deer

On our exit back onto the patanas, we were lucky enough to see a white bellied sea eagle flying across our path and then a bit later an obtuse looking crested hawk eagle.

L-R: White Bellied Sea Eagle, Crested Hawk Eagle

A text then told us that a bear was on Patanangala rock, which she was. And what a bear, even from a significant distance away of about half a click, the size of the bear could not be understimated. She was huge and sitting in a most human fashion scratching herself.

Chillin' Bear

It was still relatively early but two days in the park and the mosquito induced lack of sleep had taken its toll. With aching tailbones we decided to call it a morning in order to get some rest and exited the park wondering what our last round yet to come would bring.


2pm Return (Yala for 31st - Part 3)

I greeted Nalin’s suggestion for getting back into the park at 2pm with some trepidation. For one thing we left the park only at 11.30 and taking into account the need for a shower, lunch and getting organized for heading back into the park, the prospects of a much needed afternoon nap receded into impossibility. A second jeep joined our group into the park and Nana rode with them. 

Did I mention Nana was a good tracker? His good judgment entered the realms of fantasy as on his instructions we turned Siyambalagaswala pare and surprised a leopard picking its way through the puddles on the road. The other jeep was in front of us and as we swerved behind it to get into position for a photograph the leopard (apparently) did a spirited leap over a puddle and bolted into the undergrowth. I say apparently because after a first glimpse of the leopard, I was so caught up in making sure my camera gear was ready I missed out on the acrobatics.

Inquisitive leopard

As both jeeps came to a halt, our luck held out. A beautiful female leopard stared suspiciously out as from the bushes as we clicked a few frames. She was a bit frisky though and didn’t stay for too long, moving off away from the road and into the bush. After hanging around to confirm that she wouldn’t be gracing us with her presence again we moved on. The bush was hot and dry as we drove slowly through the park, not much stirred due to the intense heat. Our drive was however briefly enlivened by a crocodile that apparently was into fashion, sporting a green halter top of algae and determined to take on the jeep in a game of chicken.

Fashionable croc

We swung back to Gonalabe pare to see if the leopard cub had returned. As we passed the thicket where it was thought to frequent, Nishan requested a quick reverse as he thought he had spotted something. I swear I saw something then that was golden coloured in the midst of the trees but as hard as we stared and stared nothing resolved itself out of the confusion. Finally we moved on and swung back to be greeted by a cavalcade of jeeps which had taken our spot that we had exited a few moments ago. Everybody much to our chagrin was excitedly staring at the cub that we had somehow missed out on. Disgusted at our incompetence and not wishing to get asphyxiated by the diesel fumes we moved swiftly onwards. A short while later we were provided a close up of an extremely stern looking Greater Adjutant stork, atop a rock on which I had on a previous trip seen a leopard.
Greater Adjutant Stork
Unfortunately our luck really seemed to run out at that point and the rest of the round didn’t come to much. A large bull elephant did provide some lively moments though probably not as lively as we would have liked, with him showing a complete lack of interest in charging. On a side note, is it just me or is there a serious dearth of elephants in Yala. I have very rarely seen any of the family groups that used to make the park rounds so interesting in the decades past with their infants and rambunctious aunts. These days it’s mostly a few older males and the (very) rare family unit that seems more intent on feeding than charging.
  We regretfully exited the park as dusk came down keeping in mind that one tracker between two jeeps was definitely not a good idea and making a mental note to keep stalking the leopard cub until we got some usable shots.
(To be continued)


The 1st Morning (Yala for 31st - Part 2)

The first morning was a tough one to wake up to, my ears still ringing with the whines of the dive bombing mosquitoes and feeling a bit weak from losing a couple of pints of blood to the beasts. Shaking the grogginess off, Nalin and I headed back into the park, picking up Dhammika and Nana along the way for good measure. There were a lot less tourists this morning than on the penultimate day of 2009 and it looked like it was going to be a quieter morning in the park as we started on our search for wildlife, with a perky mongoose starting the day's tally.

Ruddy Mongoose

There is often a fine line between luck and instinct when it comes to trackers successfully spotting leopard and our first sighting of the day might have bordered on the former. While it was Nana who suggested the Gonnagala para as an initial route, it was Dhammika, fortuitously looking left and behind him, who made the spot. And what a spot it was, a massive male leopard stalking through the lush green undergrowth towards the road. This beautiful specimen, with distinctive scarring on his face, was one I had seen before in the area. And he was as unconcerned about our presence as he had been the previous times I had seen him. In fact he was so close to the double cab I couldn’t even get any decent photographs with my fixed focal length 300mm lens.


The sighting, despite the lack of photographic opportunities, was however still magnificent as the leopard sauntered across the road, stopped to take a couple of sips from the water pooled along the road and then leapt into the bushes. From his determined approach it seemed that he was definitely on a hunt, but was soon lost in the thick undergrowth leaving us none the wiser on his achievements for the day.

Off for a hunt

Just when we had thought we had our slice of luck for the day, a friend who was in the park texted to alert us to the presence of a leopard in a tree on Gonalabbe meda pare. We joined a queue of safari jeeps to the location only to be told once we got there that the leopard, a young cub had absconded and was nowhere to be seen. Marginally disappointed we proceeded to wander around the park, entertained by an elephant with an itch, more Jungle Fowl than I had ever seen in the park before and hordes of wild boar wandering around. It’s too bad leopard are scared stiff of boar (the big ones at least), else we would have had predator-prey interactions everywhere.

Clockwise: Itchy elephant, Jungle Fowl males, Protective wild boar

Just before we decided to call it a day, Nana suggested we swing by again on Gonalabbe and see if the leopard cub had decided to reclaim his tree. Nana and I were on the left hand side of the cab as we proceeded down the road to where the cub had been seen. Both of us suffered an epic fail in spotting as we completely missed the cub lying by the side of the road. As we passed and turned around to return up the road, the cub sat up, looked at us quizzically and then cantered off down a path into the bush. There he stopped and stared at us for awhile, providing tantalizing flashes of gold and black through the green bushes but no photographic opportunities. I think we thought we saw two cubs as well, but then we had been in the park awhile and it was hot. Eventually the cub(s?) decided to move off into the bush leaving us bereft. We staked out the site for another 30 minutes pretending we had stopped to munch on lemon puff to avoid attracting the attention of the safari jeeps but eventually we were defeated by the heat and left the park for a shower and lunch.

Once again the birds were a highlight, painted stork and open bills being in abundance throughout and especially at name lake. Nalin came up with an inspired suggestion that I carve a niche for myself in the wildlife photography business by taking pictures of flying birds. So until we left the park for lunch, I spent my time trying to anticipate when a bird would take off. And trying to avoid falling out of the vehicle.

Clockwise: Painted Stork, Open Bill Stork taking off, Open Bill in flight

(To be continued)


The end of 2009 (Yala for 31st - Part 1)

I have welcomed the New Year in many a different place, 5 star hotels in Colombo, a cold pub in Bromley, fireworks on the home street and on the streets of Vegas. 2010 however had most of those other times beat, as I returned to a place that has always had a hold on my heart, Yala National Park in the deep south of Sri Lanka. Yala has played a large role in my life, from the lore of family tales to my first memories of wildlife and nature. The dry plains and twisted palu and weera trees formed the back drop to most of my childhood photographs. The half glimpses of the elusive leopard and the lumbering bear and the old men of the jungle trackers formed some of the best parts of my childhood.

Despite all this prior to August 2009, I hadn’t been into the park for well over a decade, the vagaries of college and working in the first world having prevented me from any trips on the mostly breathless visits back home. What I found when I went back in 2009, having moved back to Sri Lanka for an extended period of time, was somewhat different from my childhood memories. The safari jeeps and cellphones had revolutionized the quest for wildlife sightings (more on that later). Instead of the one or two leopards we used to see over three holiday trips a year, with my last three trips to Yala, I have in fact lost count of the number of leopards I have seen.

On the penultimate day of 2009 however, I experienced Yala the old school way, a double cab with a couple of friends and an experienced tracker. Pug marks in the sand and instinct played the largest part in our sightings instead of phone calls and death defying drives. Our count was still pretty high though, six (well five and a leg) sightings over three days (I did cheat a bit as well with the cellphone).

We decided to stay our three nights at New Forest Circuit Bungalow about 15 minutes (as the furiously driven double cab flies) outside the park, mostly through necessity than choice as all the other locations were booked out. Not a place I would really recommend though because it was generally a bit decrepit, though the staff was excellent. At the end of the day Panthera, close by is only Rs.2,000 more a night but a lot more pleasant with its outdoor sleeping areas. Did I mention the pterodactyl sized mosquitoes that the bungalow sported since the beds were inside stuffy rooms? Bring repellent, basketfuls of coils or just book somewhere else. The place has potential but not the planning or implementation to take advantage of that potential.

After an uneventful drive in from Colombo via Pelmadulla, the customary stop at Silver Ray (good decent food though not as futuristic an establishment as its name may suggest) and a wander down the adi-seeia (100 foot) road we rolled into the bungalow, calling Nana, our tracker on the way to alert him of our arrival. After freshening up (i.e. a much awaited pee break), we swung by Yala Village to pick up another friend and headed into the park.

Like I said I had been into the park a few times this year but in the dry season. The fact that the rains had come was in evidence, every waterhole was now full and crocs were to be seen everywhere, including the rather menacing specimen shown above, swimming in a waterhole by the main route. I sincerely empathize with any poor deer that has to drink from that waterhole.

Clockwise: Jungle Fowl, Orange breasted Green Pigeon, Pipit, Malabar Pied Hornbill

Birds were also abundant including more Jungle Fowl than I had seen in awhile and other residents such as Orange-breasted Green Pigeon, Pipit and Malabar Pied Hornbills. Migrants were also abundant including the beautiful Blue-tailed Beeater and Brahminy mynah and Whistling teal. Everybody comes to Yala for the big three, leopard, bear and elephant and it’s easy to overlook that the park actually has some excellent bird life, especially in the migrant season.

T-B: Blue-tailed Beeater, Brahminy Mynah, Whistling Teal

Of course we were no exception in longing to see the big three and shortly after entering the park we saw leopard courtesy of a hurried yell from a passing safari jeep. Unfortunately all we could see of the beast was a leg and to see that leg itself we had to proceed through a traffic jam created by the safari jeeps as they crowded around to show their clients the elusive creature. Giving that leopard up for lost we proceeded down Gonagala pare (road) only to be diverted by a rather magnificent Crested Hawk Eagle who didn’t seem pleased at us disturbing his rest.

Pissed off

After snapping some shots and taking leave of the angsty bird, we proceeded down the road for what seemed a millisecond before Nana yelped in an excited undertone kotiya (leopard)! Sure enough was what appeared to be the biggest leopard this side of the Indian Ocean perched on a palu tree above the road. After the first few minutes of being awestruck, we were struck by a couple of things, one, the rather magnificent size of the creature, belly distended by a meal of what could only have been a medium sized water buffalo and also the rather incongruously small branch the leopard had decided to perch on.

Precariously perched

The light was absolutely breathtaking for photography and the leopard glowed golden in the warm afternoon sunshine. Of course as with most wildlife photography, the leopard was facing away from us so we patiently decided to stake out to the tree and wait for the opportune moment to get some National Geographic worthy shots. The reactions in the double cab ranged from a groan of disgust from Nishan to a sage observation from Nana that with the leopard’s gonads being squashed by the branch, it was only a matter of time that the leopard descended from the tree.

Nana's observation

So we waited. And waited. And waited. The leopard peacefully slumbered. My hand started to feel as if it was disconnected from the rest of my body after holding the camera and 300mm lens steady for 20 minutes waiting for the damn leopard to move. It teased us once or twice by raising its head, then sitting up for a grooming session, almost falling off the branch in the process, and then promptly went back to sleep. Kept company by mercifully few safari jeeps we waited for almost an hour, while the leopard slept on.

Grooming session

Cursing the lazy beast we decided to make a move. Driving below the leopard it turned out he had been shamming all this time and had not in fact been asleep. Instead he looked down at us very interestedly, possibly thinking that he might have room for dessert, before thinking better of it and yawning widely. After having confirmed that we were in fact hugely disinteresting, he went back to sleep and we decided to move on.



Another few milliseconds down the road and we appeared to enter fantasy land, as with a sense of déjà vu, Nana repeated his hushed yelp, kotiya! Another huge male leopard rolled in the grass by the side of the road, busy cleaning his face and paws in the grass. Of course, true to form he never really gave us a full frontal view of his handiwork and instead decided to hightail it off into the brush after a few minutes of toiletries.

Leaving for the bush

Trying to calm our beating hearts we proceeded through the park for a few more minutes before calling it a day. After all there is only so much excitement we can take these days, not being as young as we used to be. As the blue moon rose into the sky and created the first night rainbow I had ever seen (I swear I hadn’t been drinking yet) we headed to Yala village for drinks and to dodge a couple of testy elephants.

The blue moon

With a 12 year Mendis and Ginger Beer in hand we counted down to the New Year (btw for those not in the know, the 12 year Mendis is a definite winner when it comes to arrack, sweet and full flavoured, try some now!). As 2010 dawned, we experienced no fireworks, just the ocean roaring as two elephants wrestled in the moonlight. One could not have asked for a better way to end one year and begin another.

To be continued.



Welcome to 2010 and in many ways a fresh start for myself. This blog is something I’ve been meaning to start for awhile, chronicling my travelling travails in Sri Lanka along with showcasing some attempts at photogrpahy along the way. Of course until recently this has been a bit tough since I lived on another continent. However having returned home for the next few years watch this space for tales of my wandering around the island and other trips I have taken/will take in other lands.

Madiha Sunrise
Madiha seashore at sunrise