For many moons the trackers at Yala used to urge us to keep an eye on the Palu trees, for apparently you would often see the tail of a leopard twitching in the tree tops. The higher elevations were favourite places for the elusive Panthera pardus kotiya (yes I’m showing off, I know the scientific name!) especially as the temperature in the park increased. Yet for all the supposed love for heights the leopards had, over a couple of decades of trips I never saw one in a tree.
December was when I first saw a leopard in a tree, a beautiful young cub. And on my next visit to Yala in January, it seemed all the leopards had suddenly decided to go aerial as a couple of hours into our round Sugathe our jeep driver got a call about a leopard up a tree near Vepandeniya on the Uraniya Loop. Pelting hell for leather there, what we initially came face to face was a line of vehicles. Unfortunately in Yala on the weekends, this is very much to be expected, so we resignedly took our place at the back and peered towards the Palu trees off to our left.
Sugathe, our regular jeep driver
Sure enough, a flash of gold and black beckoned from amongst the boughs. A beautiful, full grown female leopard was taking a break from the hot sun. As usual, the angle she was sitting at afforded the rather wonderful photographic opportunity of a leopard leg. So we patiently settled in to wait her out, hoping against hope than when she came down off the tree she would offer a decent photograph as a reward for our patience.
She shows some rear
The heat was cloistering as we waited, the rumble of engines and diesel fumes reeked every now and then as a jeep either gave up and left or another heard the news and rolled up. We were treated to a moment of comedy when a jeep rolled up to us and an earnest gentleman asked us whether we were looking at the leopard that was up in the tree. Taken up by the obviousness of this question, both S and I didn’t miss a beat as we replied in unison, ‘No! We’re looking at the other leopard!’ Our tracker and Sugathe had to stifle their laughter while the rest of our jeep rocked with mirth. Of course this was all in Sinhala which tends to add a musical eloquence to such silliness which is probably lost in translation.
Teases us with a couple of tantalizing glimpses
While we waited, we were treated to some irresponsible behaviour from the inhabitants of a jeep in front, who were flashing a mirror at the leopard, trying to get it off the tree. Unfortunately the trackers seem to be unable to keep this kind of behaviour under control. With the risk of sounding preachy it is imperative that those of us who visit these parks show the animals the respect that they deserve as we are in their habitat. The offending jeep was too far in front for us to be able to spot who was doing it but some of the drivers and trackers yelled out (well in a manner of speaking) asking them to stop bothering the animal.
It seemed like we would be there for ever, as the leopard showed no indication of moving a muscle, apart from the occasional twitch to shake a fly off. Then…luck struck. A herd of wild boar, oblivious to the leopard above their heads moved into the grove of Palu trees and through it. The leopard perked up, sat up and, as we trained our cameras, slipped down the tree trunk and leapt into the jungle in one fluid movement, accompanied by what could only be described as a mute roar of camera clicks.
In the blink of an eye, she comes down
As the leopard disappeared into the forest behind the wild boar, the jeeps all roared into action, reversing up to a fork of the road with everyone trying to figure out where the leopard went. Sugathe has been doing this for twenty years, and his experience showed. Ignoring the antics of the rest of the tourists, we drove slightly down another road and stayed put, Sugathe admonishing us to keep quiet.
Wild boar crossing
Sure enough, the wild boar broke through, the mothers scurrying their young piglets along, dust kicked up by their tiny hooves. As they crossed the road, the dust settled. Then a minute later, out of seemingly nowhere, the leopard stepped out onto the road. She looked over to us in curiousity before deciding that we were not worth getting worried about and stalked across the road, a feline princess of the jungle, beautiful in her glory. Well worth the wait
On the hunt, she crosses into the jungle