Guest Blog: Sloth Bear Sighting

Guest Blog: How to get a great bear sighting in Yala — patience and skill to navigate away from the crowds!

Our friends and bloggers “Traveling Teacherz” visited us at Kulu camp for a few days and below is their account of a special bear sighting while on safari with us. All picture and video copyright are owned by them. Check them out at www.facebook.com/travelingteachrz www.youtube.com/travelingteachrz Make sure to scroll to the bottom of this blog post to watch the entire video! 

 

It was our last day of safaris, and we decided to go to Block 1 for this morning’s safari. We had seen a fish eagle hunting and herds of elephants grazing.

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We had also seen a huge variety of birds, including Indian paradise flycatchers.

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We were specifically hoping to see a sloth bear, even though we knew sightings were more common in April or late March, and it was only the beginning of March.

By mid-morning, we drove up to three other jeeps who had caught sight of a sloth bear in the bushes. Our driver got us in the best position to see into the bushes, and we caught a glimpse of the black fur as the bear walked around inside. We were not able to capture it on camera. We waited for a good 30 minutes before several other jeeps pulled up. We realized that the sloth bear may never come out of the bushes, even if we could hear the sticks breaking from him walking around. We decided to leave for other viewing opportunities.

After driving around for another hour and seeing plenty of elephants and mongoose, our guide got word that the sloth bear had come out from the bushes. We drove in a hurry back to that area, and saw many other jeeps in queue.

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However, the sloth bear made an appearance by walking around some of the jeeps and heading right toward our jeep!

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He lumbered slowly with his toes pointed inward and head low to the ground. We had our cameras ready, and steadily followed his movement toward us. I captured the top-down view as he passed right next to the right side of the jeep.

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I moved to the back of the jeep to continue filming and lost a shoe in the process! I was beyond enraptured in the moment; shoes were a much lower priority. The sloth bear paused to lift his leg, and excrete a small pebble, then he kept walking down the road. Eventually he made a turn into the trees. We were thrilled about our chance to see a sloth bear in the wild!

 

A sloth bear zig zags his way around jeeps and down a dusty road:

Guest Blog: Epic Leopard Sighting

A guest’s account of leopard hunting monkeys up in a tree ~ while on safari with us in the Yala National Park!

Our friends and bloggers “Traveling Teacherz” visited us at Kulu camp for a few days and below is their account of an amazing sighting while on safari with us. All picture and video copyright are owned by them. Check them out at www.facebook.com/travelingteachrz www.youtube.com/travelingteachrz Make sure to scroll to the bottom of this blog post to watch the entire video! 

A young leopard chases monkeys in a tree

In order to avoid crowds, we requested to visit Block 5 for most of our safaris. We were on an all-day safari, and we had already spent time that morning being utterly amazed by the animals we saw around every corner. We watched elephants munch and cool off in the heat of the day, and by lunch time we were ready to cool off and eat, too. We stopped at the river, enjoyed a swim, and ate some tasty rice and meat. We relaxed there for a while, until the heat of the day passed. Then, we got back into the jeep and made sure our cameras were all ready to go.

We had been on a couple drives without catching a glimpse of a leopard, and the anticipation of seeing one was causing us to listen intently for alarm calls. Nearly 15 minutes after leaving the river, we heard alarm calls from langur monkeys. Our guide carefully tried to follow the sound, and we drove around the area for a couple minutes. The sound intensified, and we knew we were close! Everyone in the jeep was on high alert.

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We spotted the beautiful young leopard lying in a small clearing of trees. She seemed to be enjoying the shade, and she was laying down with her legs stretched out and her head up watching us.

The monkeys were right above her in the trees, screeching their alarm calls. She ignored there calls at first, but, after a little while, she seemed agitated by them. We watched her gaze follow the monkeys as they jumped around in the trees. Suddenly, she made a quick move to get up, and she positioned herself at the base of one tree.

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In a few short leaps, she was up in the trees, chasing the monkeys around! We heard lots of rustling and more screeching, and we lost sight of her at one point. 
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Then, a minute later, she was coming back down the tree, seemingly content to have scared off the monkeys.

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Once down the tree, she lumbered toward the bushes across the road, walking right in front of our jeep. We were the only jeep in sight. We watched as the leopard casually walked toward the bushes, then she seemed to catch movement and got into a crouched position. Within seconds, she was off chasing something in the bushes, and that’s the last we saw of her. Our anticipation had been met with a special sighting, in which we enjoyed without any other noise or jeep queues! It was truly a memorable experience.

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2 Leopard Cubs, a Log, and An Afternoon in the Presence of the Heirs of the Jungle

A pictorial essay of just one of the amazing leopard sightings we have been treated to in February and March this year.

The opening of “Block 5” of the Yala National Park a couple of years ago was a much welcome addition to Sri Lanka’s wildlife offering, and much needed diversification from the often crowded Block 1.  The wildlife has been rich, with great sightings of rare migrant birds, small herds of elephants, plenty of deer, and other interesting mammals. However, this block has been one of the best places to see leopards in Sri Lanka (arguably in the world?!?!), and recently we were treated to a special afternoon with two comfortable and relaxed cats.

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Mom and 2 of her cubs wander out into the open for all to see

The sighting
On a quiet afternoon drive while on safari with our guests last month, we came across an amazing leopard sighting — two cubs from the celebrated litter who have becomes the stars of this sector of Yala were out to play.  These 2 cubs were being observed by another safari jeep when we pulled up, but we kept our distance and they didn’t pay us much attention.

The two sub-adult cubs were briefly joined by a third leopard, who resembled their mother at that distance. With the same stealth that she had appeared to check the location of the cubs and give them notice on where she expects to find them later, she slunk away quietly in a sheer act of genius — as the two clubs were playing in the open, the jungle’s attention was on them. This would give her a great opportunity to spring an ambush from the flank. (Similar to the clip below!):

Watching sub-adult cubs always raises several contrasting emotions. At this age (about one and a half years old), they are still playful, a tad clumsy and extremely animated — especially if they have siblings to play-fight with. But it is also an awkward age for them because they soon will be independent (in about six months’ time) and will have to start charting their own path of life and solidify their own territory. Staying true to their age, they stalked and ambushed each other, and also displayed a lot of affection to each other that drew many heartfelt “awwww”s from the guests in our jeep 🙂

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Tail up means playtime and hunting is left to mom

These cubs have become one of the key attractions of Block 5 and are often spotted in this quadrant of the park (which we conclude is their mother’s territory), mainly in the afternoon. This particular sighting lasted for approx. 30 minutes and we were lucky to have good light to document this experience.

Block 5 has a perfect environment for Leopards to give birth to 2 or 3 cubs (while less rare in Africa, Yala’s female leopards have littered multiple cubs quite frequently in the recent past), as the pray density is large with one of the largest herds of spotted Deer we have seen in a very long time in ANY of the National Parks. This is mainly due to the fact that during the war, the road from Sella Kataragama to Buttala was cleared on either side for approx. 100 meters (as well as the road thru Block 5 to the weheragala Dam) for security reasons — due to the risk of ambush. This opened up large tracts of grass land for the herbivores and currently the 100 meter gap is being maintained by DWC from the Galge Entrance until the Weheragala Dam.

Sunset over a waterhole in Yala National Park – Block 5:

This also habituated the deer population in this sector because it was close to the road, as there was a reasonable amount of traffic to and from the dam. From the cleared jungle area emerged a lush tract of grass on which deer now graze in abundance. The lower threat of poaching due to both the presence of military until recently, as well as visibility also helped both prey and predator thrive.

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One of the world’s most lethal hunters looking quite comical and playful 

Sightings of very shy Leopards in this part the park were seen in open areas, especially while they were hunting (which is quite rare for Sri Lankan national parks).  We noticed in the past 3 years that the Leopards in Yala Block 5 have become distinctly more habituated to vehicular traffic much faster than in Block 1. Two key reasons we suspect are: 1) While Block 1 claims to host some of the highest leopard density in the world, it is also arguably some of the highest vehicle density for any National Park in the world! Hence, the disturbance rate to animals is higher. 2). Block 1 consists of heavier and thicker vegetation, which means most sightings are at a close proximity to the leopards; Block 5 features more open areas and fewer roads, so visitors can observe undisturbed leopard behaviour for longer (quality sightings) from outside the cats’ comfort zone.

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A leopard stalking prey at the base of the dam (perfect golden light too!)
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One of our guests tracking its movements through binoculars

The  area of the recent sighting was at the base of the Weheragala Dam. The lower road that runs parallel to the dam is constantly wet and slightly water logged due to the ground water seepage from the water collected in the dam. There are many tall trees that we see dead — most were felled during the construction of the dam, and some have died due to excess water.

This grass is again found only in this section of the park and possibly its thriving due to the constant moisture and wetness from the reservoir. The buffalos seem to like the grass; however we seldom see smaller herbivores nor elephants feeding on this grass. This phenomenon is worth a bit of research.

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The highlight of any holiday would be an afternoon spent with such beautiful animals

The cubs commandeered a log as their prop of choice for the evening, and continued their shenanigans as the light faded. We eventually had to leave the cubs as darkness was falling and we had to exit the park. We hoped that the mom had a successful hunt that evening and the cubs were able to feed.

Leopard sightings in the first quarter of this year (2017) have been off to a flying start – please follow us on Instagram  @kulu_safaris to keep up with the latest sightings and snippets on interesting animal behaviour that we have observed.

Kulu’s Yala Camp has been a Birdwatcher’s Dream this January

21 Species including 7 migrants in the space of a few hours – a great morning of birdwatching at our very own campsite by the Yala National Park.

Recently (January 2017), we took a morning off from a typical game drive, and hung back at camp with one of our guests to enjoy the calm and tranquility of waking up with the birds. Kulu Safaris’ camp is located on the fringe of Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park, famed for its leopard sightings.  Yala is home to not just wildlife, but a rich spectrum of birdlife as well.  The nature of commercial activity in the park has not won Yala as a birdwatcher’s paradise in Sri Lanka (yet!). But to the keen birdwatcher, a little treasure of a birding destination awaits.

Since most of the other guests were on game drives that day, there was very little human activity on our 6-acre property of regenerating forest-land, on which we offer 6 semi-luxury tents. Dawn broke over a chilly January morning, and the strong mocha-pot coffee was gulped down. As our last Land Cruiser  made its way out of camp, the only audible sounds was the chirping of birdcalls. Dressed in our khakis and equipped with cameras and binoculars, we stealthily took a gander through the many wooded path ways that snake in and around camp.

We eventually slipped beyond the camp fence and onto the dry lake-bed  in front of camp. Due to the drought, we recorded a very different portfolio of birds, compared to the usual visitors that would have comprised of teals, terns, plovers, storks and waders.

In a 6-hour span, we were able to photograph 21 species of birds, of which 7 were winter migrants. Migrants typically visit us from November through around March. Other migrants who were around, but escaped our lens included the Indian Pitta, Yellow Wagtail, and Brahminy Starling.

Below is a quick photo essay of our sightings from that special morning, this January. Follow our Instagram account @kulu_safaris to stay up to date of all our sightings.

Please write to us at safari@kulusafaris.com with any questions.

Enjoy!

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Red-vented Bulbul (resident)
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Purple Sunbird (resident)
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Purple-rumped Sunbird (resident)
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Chestnut-headed Bee-eater (uncommon resident)
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Ever the entertainer: Blue-tailed Bee-eater (Winter migrant)

A pair of Small Minivets (male and female) (uncommon residents) add a some flashes of striking colour.

Two very special guests – winter visitors, both at camp, made the decision to hang back at camp totally worth it! An Orange-headed Thrush, and what we suspect is a pale-morph Booted Eagle.

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Orange-headed Thrush (rare winter migrant)
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Pale-morph Booted Eagle (very rare winter migrant)
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Brown Shrike / Philippine Shrike
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Barn Swallow (Hirundo Rustica) Common winter migrant
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Sri Lanka Woodshrike (resident)
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Grey-bellied Cuckoo (uncommon winter migrant)
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White-browed Bulbul

 

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Asian Paradise-flycatcher (common resident)
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White-browed Fantail (common resident)
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Blythe’s Pipit (Regular winter migrant)
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Common Tailorbird (common resident)

A Hawk-eagle caught what may have been a giant squirrel and invited himself over for lunch …

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Common Iora (common resident)

Of course, the best part of birdwatching is sitting back with a beverage 🙂

And, complete list of birds that you may see in Sri Lanka is found in our Field Notebook that can be found in each tent.

Kulu Safaris Campsite in Yala is a great base for the avid birder and wildlife observer, who enjoys an experiential twist to their holiday in Sri Lanka. Visit http://www.kulusafaris.com or write to us at safari@kulusafaris.com to insure about your next birding visit!

Sri Lanka’s Migrant Birding Season Begins!

Kulu’s guide Ramani is looking forward to this year’s migrant birding season in Yala National Park! Here’s what to expect:

The annual journey of migrant birds to Sri Lanka is now in effect!  It typically starts around mid-August during the start of the Northern Autumn and extends into April.

Approximately 200 bird species can be expected to fly in from Northern India, Siberia, Scandinavia and Western Europe. But not all our visitors are from the North. Some pelagic species of seabirds like Shearwaters, Petrels, and Noddies migrate to Sri Lankan waters from Southern Oceanic islands during the southern hemisphere’s winter (March-October).

These seasonal migrations which are thousands of miles long have captured man’s curiosity and awe for millennia. Birds migrate for various reasons, and many of which are complex and not fully understood. The simpler explanations include ease of sourcing food, safe breeding grounds, and favourable weather.

The specific routes they take may be genetically programmed or learned to varying degrees. Many (but not all) take the same routes to return home.

And not all birds return after the winter. The immature birds of many wader species spend the 2nd year of their life in Sri Lanka, instead of immediately returning to their breeding grounds. They leave for breeding when they have reached maturity the following year.

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Yala National Park is well suited to host a broad array of birds because of its diverse ecology. During migrant season, Yala is home to a long list of visiting waders, shorebirds and forest birds so make sure to keep a look out on your game drive. Especially around water holes and lagoons.

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A Kulu guide does a birding walk with some kids at camp

The location of our camp in Yala makes it a great place for bird watching as well! The lake in front of camp fills up with the November rains and birdlife in and around your tent is plenty! This is great for kids because we can keep them occupied with birding and nature walks 🙂

You can enjoy a great view of some of these migrants from the deck of your tent or sit out by the water in the morning and watch these vibrantly coloured bombers whizz by while you sip your coffee. Commons winter visitors at camp include Blue Tailed Bee Eaters, Indian Pitta, Forest Wagtail, Brown Shrike, and the Bhahminy Myna. We’ll also be on the lookout for waders once the lake in front of camp fills up. Heading out on the water early morning, in one of our kayaks with a pair of binoculars is a great way observe birds!

During game drives, we will be scouring the waterholes and marshlands in Yala for a host of waders and shorebirds that include several species of duck (Gargany, Pintail and Teal), Plovers, Stints, Sandpipers and Terns. We’ll also be on the lookout for the famous Combed Duck who returned to Sri Lanka in 2012, after 80 years in exile 🙂

Whichever you choose, migrant season has begun and we look forward to hosting our winter visitors on your annual trek to Sri Lanka 🙂

Kulu Safaris guide Ramani is one of the most passionate birders on our team of guides. Shas been involved in bird research projects in the past, and has had some great exposure to the nuances of bird behaviour and their habits. Ramani has also worked with some ornithological experts during their research projects in Sri Lanka. 

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Bird watching is a great way to disconnect from the grid and spend time with nature

World Elephant Day – a Sri Lankan Perspective

Most of our wild elephants roam outside our national parks. We know exactly where to find them, but it also means we need to be more cognisant in how we protect them.

World Elephant Day — emotionally stirring social media posts aside, we feel that it also ought to be identified as World “WILD” Elephant day.

The elephant is perhaps the most controversial of all wildlife on the island of Sri Lanka. They are venerated by local culture and are a prominent fixture of our much-loved “peraharas”; they have played an important part in Sri Lanka’s history in both wild and domesticated forms. Yet in the villages, they are treated as rogues and are chased away with firecrackers, even shot with rifles when they wander into farm land (land that has in fact, encroached into their wild habitat). Owning an elephant is also a status symbol for an old-school, aspirational bourgeois.  Meanwhile, conservationists are puling their hair out trying to figure out more effective ways to protect and conserve this fascinating creature within a system of static, fenced, national parks that pay little heed to their innate nature to roam nomadically; some researchers estimate that an entire two-thirds of our wild elephant population roam outside our National Parks!

On the bright side, this means that we are not limited to National Parks to observe these beautiful, regal, intelligent, entertaining creatures. When we are fortunate enough to be amongst them, we typically see only a tiny part of their spectrum of behaviour — usually its feeding (elephants can consume the better part of a ton of food a day!) or asserting their comfort zone with warning gestures and mock charges towards a human audience, especially in the presence of young. But as social animals, there is amazing depth to the nuances of their behaviour — intricacies that can take a lifetime of studying to fully appreciate the riches of their existence.

 

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A pair of bull elephants square off in a battle of wits (and strength!) to test their dominance, in Kudakalliya, Arugambay

Kudakalliya Bungalow is part of our Haritha Collection portfolio, and sits on a relatively lonely stretch of beach in one of the most fascinating little pockets of ecological wonder (arguably in the entire country!). In front of the bungalow is a tiny island of a few acres with lush vegetation, surrounded by a brackish water moat, flanked by the ocean and rice paddy on either side. Hundreds of acres of such rice paddy are scattered in a messy grid across an expanse of jungle and scrub that informally extends from Lahugala National Park in the north of us, into Kudumbigala Sanctuary and the Kumana National Park to the south of us.

The tall foliage on this particular island makes the stealthy pachyderms almost invisible from ground level — but the balcony from our bungalow is an ideal vantage point to observe them unobtrusively. The video below was from a special morning when a group of bulls (male elephants who are typically solitary) who were feeding on the island decided to have a bit of fun in the moat right in front of our bungalow. Such amazing sightings of unusual elephant behaviour are rare throughout in the world!

 

 

Development in this part of the country was acutely suppressed by Sri Lanka’s battle with terrorism — the war (arguably) preserved these “unprotected” wild habitats that elephants enjoyed for much longer than their cousins who have been in conflict with humans in more developed regions. But with a recent surge of tourism taking over Arugambay (what was once a sleepy town that only the most hardcore surfers visited), these wild areas are under severe pressure to handle a new wave of economic growth without hindrance to a magnificent wild ecosystem right on Arugambay’s doorstep.

While the fate of our wild elephants hangs in the balance, a few pockets of informal wilderness still exist. Kulu Safaris and the Haritha Collection are fortunate to have the Kudakalliya Bungalow in our portfolio, that sits alongside such a fascinating wild oasis. The ability to have such exclusive, non-intrusive access to some of Sri Lanka’s most sought after wildlife — wild elephants, crocodiles, several species of eagles and migrant birds are all visible from the bungalow — is a special privilege. How would you like to sip your evening tea or a sundowner while watching an undisturbed group of wild elephants entirely to yourselves?

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A lone (wild) bull elephant grazes peaceful in front of Kudakalliya Bungalow, just a couple of miles south of Arugambay – Sri Lanka’s (and now, one of the world’s) hottest surfing town

The picture below is iconic of the life of a Sri Lankan wild elephant. Here, two males have wandered away from the refuge of the island at sunset, having swum across the moat. As night falls, they will (quietly and stealthily!) graze on what remains of an already harvested rice paddy. In the background, you can see power lines alongside the main road that connects Arugambay with Panama, Kudumbigala Sanctuary, and Kumana National Park.  The flip side of “Human Elephant-conflict” coin is “Human-Elephant cohabitation” — hopefully we can evolve to cohabit with these amazing creatures so that sights like these will be enjoyed by future generations.

Let’s not let the sun set on our wild elephants – they need us urgently.

“Happy” #WorldElephantDay to you all.

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Two male elephants banter at dusk, before feeding on the remains of an already harvested rice paddy – 10 minutes south of Sri Lanka’s surf hotspot Arugambay

Best time to visit Yala: May-July ?

#Summer2016 has been phenomenal for leopard sightings thus far!

Yet again, 2016 proved that the months of May-July could well be the best time to visit the Yala National Park, to spend a few exciting days on safari in Sri Lanka with Kulu Safaris.

 

This year, we were blessed with some unexpected rain in May that helped keep Yala greener for a little longer that usual. However, with the onset of the annual dry season and lower visitation numbers from May-July, we have experienced some great leopard sightings, with very few vehicles around to crowd the animals. Our guests had exclusive, front-row seats to some fascinating animal behaviour!

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An adult leopard on an evening patrol of its territory

Yala Block 5 in particular has been very rewarding for our guests. Strong populations of spotted deer have definitely underpinned the health of the leopard population in this block.

True to our pioneering ethos, Kulu Safaris was a key proponent in encouraging the Department of Wildlife and Conservation to prepare and open Yala Block 5 for visitation. As the first regular visitor to this sector, we were careful in how we approached animals while on safari, always keeping a respectful distance from wild animals (in effect, we stayed well outside the comfort zone so that they never felt threatened by vehicles).

Our guests especially enjoyed the diversity in vegetation and ecology that Block 5 offered, as well as the undisturbed leopard sightings; thus Kulu spent a lot of time exploring this sector. As a result, we are seeing an encouraging degree of comfort amongst the adult leopards that are resident in this sector — they already seem relatively habituated and tolerant of vehicles. We are also looking forward to watching the first (since Yala Block 5 was opened commercially) set of leopard cubs grow up over the next year as well!

All in all, Yala Block 5 has afforded us excellent wildlife viewing this summer, and we expect this trend to continue.

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This cat’s hungry — as you can see from the hollow in its lower stomach

Two amazing sightings stand out as highlights of this summer thus far. The sighting with the best optics was undoubtedly the wild-boar kill that a huge female leopard hoisted up a tree. The strength and ferocity of a wild-boar makes it a relatively high-risk meal for a leopard. Although leopards are known to commonly steal piglets from a sounder of boars, it requires patience and immense skill for a leopard to successfully take down an adult boar.

The video of the wild-boar kill below is a quick edit of what was a relatively long and uninterrupted sighting. The leopard was not comfortable with the positioning of the boar so decided to drag it elsewhere, probably further away from the road to a quieter location. From our angle, the drag looked quite comical but the leopard was determined to move the kill and did so successfully – this was one strong cat!

 

The other amazing sighting was an actual kill that happened right in front of us. On a game drive, we stopped to watch a herd of deer because of alarm calls. We also knew there was a leopard prowling nearby but we had lost visual.

More often than not, a deer can outrun a leopard if it has even the slightest advantage, such as warning or line of sight. Thus, leopards use their stealth and camouflage to get as close as possible before springing an attack. And this particular hunt is a perfect example of just how close a leopard can get to a herd of deer, undetected. (For us watching, it was NatGeo material! – minus the lenses).

In the video below, the deer are grazing with the leopard hidden in the tall grass, just a few feet away from the target, unaware of its presence until the very last moment. The time that lapsed from launching itself at the deer to the actual takedown was less than a second!

 

Kulu Safaris offers several special deals during low-season to take advantage of the exclusive access to wildlife during this time. So we advise our fans and partners to keep an eye on our promotions page !

We also welcome large groups who enjoying booking camp exclusively for themselves for a special and exclusive wildlife experience, so please write to us at safari@kulusafaris.com with your inquiries.

Until next time!

 

 

 

 

 

The Steve Winter Experience – an Unforgettable Summer

Recap of our experience working Steve Winter & his team on a camera trap project

A glimpse into our work with documentary production and conservation, in this instance, with the famous Steve Winter and his talented team of videographers. 

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“Javana… are we wasting time trying to find a leopard in an area that nobody has even seen one?” drawled Steve Winter. His thick, American accent was heavy with skepticism as he trudged onto the Patanangala beach, in the scorching Sri Lankan heat. ‘[Mad] leopards and an American out in the noon day sun’ would become a recurring theme across Yala National Park, over the summer of 2015, when Kulu Safaris joined forces with Steve Winter and his talented team – Bertie Gregory and Alexander Braczkowski.

Steve, Bertie, and Alex were capturing imagery for National Geographic’s “Mission Critical: Leopards at the Door” – an in-depth look at how adaptable leopards are across the diverse range of habitats in which they are found around the world.

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This really fresh pug-mark indicated that this leopard had walked up from the edge of the water not long before this shot was taken… what was he doing there?!?

The project got off to a great start. As Javana (the founder of Kulu Safaris) led the group onto the beach on the first day of the expedition back in July 2015, the spirits of the jungle were kind. We came across pugmarks (leopard footprints) in the fine sand – fresh, hot-off-the-press, pugmarks. The tracks led along the beach, and up a sand dune. A quick recce along the dune (accompanied by an official park tracker in tow) led to a glimpse of a leopard sunning itself atop the far end of the sand dune, but it slunk away into the jungle before any of the team could catch up.

Steve’s question answered immediately — it was a great sign to kick off the project and to get down to some serious work over the next few months!

Why Yala?

Search Google for an image of a “leopard on a beach”, or any related combination of search terms. You will find NONE whatsoever. Sri Lanka is one of the very few places in the world to feature national parks that are host to significant wild leopard populations – Yala and Wilpattuthat have coastal boundaries.

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There was a lot of leopard activity on this stretch of beach, but with no road access few sightings have been recorded or photographed

And Steve wanted to be the first photographer to get the perfect shot of a leopard on the beach!

The significance behind the photograph related to the adaptability of leopards to whatever habitat they had to adapt to in order to survive. Yala Block I is mostly shrub jungle with quite a few rocky outcrops, and these are ideal denning sites for raising cubs. Leopards in Yala are seen mostly on these rocks, on trees, or on jeep tracks and game trails.  But because of general lack of access to the beach, no known photographic evidence of leopards on Yala’s beach areas has emerged to date.

The National Geographic documentary included footage that included leopard in Indian cities, Sri Lankan National Parks, and across to the habituated leopards of Sabi Sands private game lodges in South Africa.

Why Kulu?

So back to Steve’s question… how was Kulu so confident of finding leopard on the beaches of Yala, to make it worth their while to set up thousands of dollars worth of photographic equipment in the harsh conditions? And at which locations along the 12km coastal stretch of Block I should we set up the camera traps?

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How would YOU interpret what has happened here? Leopard tracks and Sambar tracks on the beach … 

Kulu Safaris is the pioneer in tented safaris in Sri Lanka, and our founders have been exploring the furthest corners of the island (and beyond!) since they were old enough drive 🙂

On several explorations, recces, and camping trips to remote areas, Javana and the Kulu team have come across leopard in coastal areas and around sand dunes. Frequently, they found evidence of leopards’ presence in the form of tracks, droppings, and the remnants of kills. Kulu Safaris once ran a mobile (temporary) camping operation (with explicit written permission from the Department of Wildlife) inside Block I of Yala National Park. Sightings on the beach in the vicinity of the beachside campsite indicated that Yala’s leopards were in fact, quite comfortable in this habitat.

Kulu Safaris has also fine-tuned its logistics support operations, having worked with many international researchers and filmmakers. The focal point of several of these assignments has been the well known and highly respected Toby Sinclair, who we have adopted as a dear friend of Kulu Safaris. Toby has been involved in conservation, policy guidance, wildlife documentaries, as well as being at the forefront of experiential travel industry with &Beyond — a leading safari and experiential travel company with a focus on conservation. Toby’s deep knowledge on India and Sri Lanka, as well as filmmaking, made him a valuable partner on this project, both as an advisor as well as a coordinator.

The combination of local knowledge, relationships with key personnel, mobile assets and Kulu’s logistical prowess delivered a well-oiled mechanism of support which Steve and team came to rely heavily upon over the following months.

Why Camera Traps?

For those of you not familiar with Steve Winter or his work, check out his website http://www.stevewinterphoto.com. Or better yet, go straight to his Instagram https://www.instagram.com/stevewinterphoto/ for a crash-course on the type of photography that he is known for. Steve has a distinct style to how he crafts his images. He is an avid, and expert user of camera traps to capture moments, perspectives, and realities that endangered species face in a way that the typical photographer cannot. The composition of some of his memorable photographs includes a combination of a cat’s natural habitat, often something peculiar or surprising about their behaviour, and a whole load of drama that is brought to life with his wizardry in how he use light.

 

An an epic shot like the one above is more than a show of technical genius. The message Steve tried to convey in that photograph was leopards can thrive in close proximity to humans, and to show how adaptable they are to their environment — even in an urban setting.

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Successful camera trapping requires 2 parts genius, 2 parts luck, 6 parts sweat and toil, a generous helping of local knowledge, a knack for anticipating animal behaviour, topped with a generous garnish of profanity!

Javana and Steve are both well stocked with choice profanity, so it was great to have that box ticked from the get go.

Steve figured using camera traps would be the best way to craft such a photograph. Because of the way Steve set up his traps by use a complex combination of lighting options, it afforded him the opportunity to capture an image either during the day or night – whenever the leopard chose to walk past. See Steve in action in India, watch him explaining his thinking behind a camera trap set up, in the clip below:

 

The Process…

We assisted Steve to set up camera traps at five locations in Yala Block I– three were along the beach, and two were on rocky outcrops. The equipment ranged from Bushnell camera traps mainly used for scientific fieldwork, to DSLR’s for the artistic photographs that were supported with weather-proof housing, lighting, infrared triggers, and a whole bunch of other wires and contraptions. But somehow, the dream team of Steve, Bertie, and Alex managed to camouflage and hide all traces of this man-made technology at the camera trap site, so that it wouldn’t interfere with animal behavior.

Camera set up, testing and adjusting took many long hours over many long days. Living in the jungle and having hosted many talented photographers before, we were beginning to truly understand what separates the ‘good’ from ‘great’ photographers. Preparation, persistence, creativity, imagination and perfectionist mindset were common across all of them. (And profanity too!)

A bit of luck never hurt either. Imagine you have an open stretch of deserted beach, and you’re hoping that this leopard walks through a specific 10-foot where your camera trap is set up. The difficulty of executing the perfect shot was high, and the probably of the leopard walking through the required path in the perfect light was low…. But the rarity of the shot was worth all the effort.

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What’s the probability that a leopard would walk along this exact path on such a vast stretch of beach?

To be continued…

Unfortunately, Steve was not able to get the perfect beach shot. While we were fortunate that a leopard HAD walked the desired path and the cameras had fired, it happened during a moonlight night which threw off the exposure to a less-than-NatGeo-quality-photograph.

However, Steve WILL be back in Yala for a second try, and we look forward to having him and his team soon.

What it all means for Kulu:

The silver lining to not getting ‘the’ shot, was the immense learning experience for the Kulu team – from our guides to our drivers to operational staff. Working with such revered professionals and picking up tips on their craft was priceless.

An added bonus to our guests at camp during this project was the opportunity to interact with Steve and his celebrity supporting cast! (Click the play button on our instagram clip below)

 

We were honored at the opportunity to have been able to share our knowledge on the nuances of Sri Lanka’s jungles, animal behavior and translate the whispers of the wilderness to our esteemed guests. We were also proud to have been able to efficiently execute the logistics of such a demanding project, thanks to the experiences past.

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Bertie Gregory celebrated his birthday at camp during the project

In turn, our learning were also immense, as Steve, Alex and Bertie were generous enough to share great insights into photography such as reading light, how to set up a proper camera trap, and how to manage a sighting from the perspective of a photographer or videographer.

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The Kulu Safaris Ops team with Steve’s Team

What it means for the ‘Big Picture’:

Our work with researchers (check the experiment.com link below), photographers, movie makers and documentary companies (see our work here) has reiterated the relevance of Sri Lankan’s biodiversity and natural heritage.

As a country that was originally marketed for it’s fascinating history, culture, heritage, and beaches, catching the eye of the Steve Winters of this wold is only the tip of the iceberg of just how much a hidden treasure Sri Lanka is in terms of wildlife and biodiversity. Sri Lanka’s biodiversity has been scarcely monetised (it has barely been protected!) and when it has found commercial value (such as with Whale-watching in Mirissa or with the “Gathering” in Minneriya) the process has been poorly thought out and conducted with little regulation and purpose, and most often to the detriment of the animals.

Hence, we hope that such exposure to Sri Lanka’s wildlife assets will be a catalyst for a new wave of tourism; one that finds the balance between conservation and economic value. One that appeals to the discerning client whose dollar is exchanged not just for consumption, but for involvement in conservation, in the sharing of knowledge, in sharing their energy to protect the species today that depend on us to see a more optimistic tomorrow.

Recent Conservation Work:

We are thrilled to say, that we have embarked on a new project with Alex and the Leopard Trust to support a camera-trap study of the leopards on three key national parks in Sri Lanka. More on that in our next blog post, but you can get some info (and hopefully contribute!) here:

https://experiment.com/projects/monitoring-the-endangered-sri-lankan-leopard

 

So what happened to that leopard on the beach?

Even though Steve didn’t capture “the” shot, we were able to capture some great footage, such as a group of Sambar ‘surfing’ waves – for fun no less! We also came across a large, grizzled male leopard that was not one of the usual individuals who we see on our safari rounds (around the 1:40 mark in Alex’s video below), which provoked our curiosity to find out more about the leopards in Yala.

Have a look at Alex’s clip below — all footage was taken in Sri Lanka with Kulu Safaris, during our project with Steve.

 

 

Stay Tuned!

 

 

 

Activities at Camp – Kulu Safaris

Safari isn’t all being driven in a jeep … connect with nature with our fun, adrenalin-pumping activities!

Going on Safari is arguably one of the most fun, interesting, and experiential travel activities on your “things to do in Sri Lanka” bucket list. We have the largest campsite of all the operators — on one side we are flanked by jungle alongside the Katagamuwa section of the Yala National Park complex, and in front of us, we have a beautiful lake that all our tents look out towards.

While a game drive (going on safari) is the most common activity that our guests partake in, we’re seeing an increasing number of them staying back to do some of the other cool things we offer at camp. 

Kayaking has been a recent hit, with clients of all ages. The serenity of being out on the water at dawn or sunset is unmatchable. Being eye-level with water birds also adds a unique and different perspective to birding, which can be a welcome change from repeated rounds in a safari jeep on dusty roads.

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Birdwatching from a kayak – a unique perspective

Our kayaks are top of the range. They are injection moulded, rugged plastic, ocean-going kayaks that are built for stability, strength and maximum safety — they are also insanely difficult to topple. All our kayaks are for two people, and even include water-proof hatches inside, so feel free to take your camera and snap a few pictures while out on the water! We are pedantic about safety precautions and life jackets copulsory.

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Getting out on the water will definitely get your blood flowing

If you read the “about us” section on our website, you would see that our founders have explored every nook and cranny of this island. We have used kayaks just like these to explore 22 rivers around Sri Lanka, and we have trusted them with our lives.

The other activity that is popular with guests is the nature walk. We advise clients that only those who have some experience with trekking and are relatively fit try this. Even though we call it a “walk”, it is as much a climb which includes navigating rocks, slopes, and manoeuvring through stubborn branches. And once you have come to terms with the terrain, be mindful that there ARE wild animals around, as seen by elephant droppings and leopard tracks on some our routes.

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Climbing down is just as challenging as climbing up!

The walk ends on the summit of a rock that has an amazing view across the lake in front of camp and the jungle that extends beyond. It’s a great location to spend the evening watching the sun go down, or to even walk up early morning and do some birding. Our walk is through jungle that is clearly outside the boundary of the national park.

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What a spot for a sundowner!

Safari is not just about driving around a national park in a jeep. It is a very spiritual experience — connecting with nature and being one with your natural surroundings. It’s a great opportunity to turn your phone off and let the aesthetic beauty of the jungle and nature come to you; take the time to embrace it and to see and feel what it REALLY means to be alive.

So next time you’re with us and feel like doing something different on your trip, try some of our activities ! Follow us on Facebook to keep abreast of anything new. See you soon!

 

 

The Thrill of a Leopard Sighting!

Jeana’s back! Here latest story is about the rush of seeing a leopard in the wild and how you can NEVER be ‘used to it’! Even as a guide 🙂

Jeana is back, adding to her series of blog posts about her experience as a young guide at Kulu Safaris. Here, she recounts a memorable leopard sighting, but in the context that even as a guide who encounters leopard every day, each sighting is just as exciting as the first.

If I were to describe a typical safari “guide”, I imagine someone who remains cool and collected when being charged by an elephant, has a wealth of knowledgeable about flora and fauna, as well as has the confidence and people skills to share their knowledge with guests.

What struck me from the very beginning is that ‘calmness’ is merely an art we have to perfect over time. As a young guide, seeing an animal in the wild gives me the same adrenaline rush as any tourist. I have had to intentionally keep myself from exclaiming and pushing in front of my guests to catch a better view! I learnt fast that as a guide, I’m responsible for bringing to life the Sri Lankan safari experience.

As guides who lead clients on a safari, the pressure on us to track and showcase Sri Lankan wildlife is real and intense. Our typical ‘team’ on a game drive comprises of an excellent Kulu driver, who has a sixth sense for the jungle and a knack for picking routes (our drivers Preme, Rohana, Kumara, and Namal all qualify as excellent) and a good tracker to support our driver. We need to work in unison, as a cohesive team, to read the jungle for signs and clues, and to anticipate as well as react. There are many moving parts to a sighting: from the build up of following clues and tracks, to the nature of the sighting (eg: watching a comfortable relaxed leopard is far different to being in the presence of an irritable bull elephant in musth!). Also important is the positioning of the vehicle – are the guests rocking up with big zoom lenses and do we need to keep a distance to get their photographs, or are they happy to be a little closer to the animal etc. etc.

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A monitor lizard tucked into the hollow of a tree… not the easiest spot!

One afternoon in 2015, we ventured into Block 5 (also known as Lunugamwehera National Park) with our safari-modified Land Cruiser full of guests. Kumara was driving and I was the guide. Kumara’s eyes are magically accustomed to the jungle to such an extent that he can spot a monitor lizard in a tree hollow, while driving past (bear in mind that most often, the tree and the reptile are the same colour!!). As a guide, one of the aspects of your training is how to spot the little things, while keeping your eyes peeled for that hint of gold that’s out of place. It’s great to have a team that complements each other – knowing I can rely on Kumara and our Kulu drivers to spot animals early means I can spend more time conversing with guests.

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The young female leopard on a pallu tree…watchful, patient, regal… and makes for beautiful photography!

We slowly take a bend and I’m looking out to my right, towards a small rocky outcrop where we had a recent leopard sighting, when the jeeps abruptly stops and the engine is switched off. Kumara looks back at me through his side mirror and points upwards … “Leopard in the tree” he lip-syncs with a smug grin. Lo and behold, a stunning female sub-adult leopard is lounging on a low branch of a “pallu” tree within 20 feet from our jeep!

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A little inquisitive…shortly before she wandered off into the jungle again

 

Everyone in the jeep noticeably is in absolute awe of this beautiful creature, who is relaxed and comfortable in our presence. Thankfully, our guests appreciate the value of being quiet at a sighting and the only noises are of the jungle and soft camera clicks. I’m thrilled – Kumara and I share a silent “oh yeah” moment in the mirror while the guests are engrossed with the leopard.

The leopard yawns and licks and looks around until she finally stands up, stretches and descends elegantly down the trunk of the tree, before strolling casually into the jungle. We have the privilege of having her all to ourselves for close to half an hour.

As Kumara turns the engine back to life and we drive off, I feel the post-sighting buzz, as the jeep is full of chatter about the beautiful cat and the guests compare photographs. I share equally in their excitement and tell myself once again that no matter how many leopards I see… I will always be as amazed as the first time I ever saw one.

Curious about Kulu’s Tented Safari experience ? Visit us at www.kulusafaris.com or write to us at safari@kulusafaris.com