Yala with the Kids: A guide to the most fun your child can have in our jungles

This October, Sri Lanka observed World Children’s Day, and to celebrate, we’ve got a kid’s stay free offer on for the entirety of our value season in 2018, to give you more reason to book in a holiday safari with your child.

We often get asked if safaris are suitable for children under 12, and quite simply, it is! This October, Sri Lanka observed World Children’s Day, and to celebrate, we’ve got a kid’s stay free offer on for the entirety of our value season in 2018, to give you more reason to book in a holiday safari with your child. Here are some of our best tips and activities when staying at our camp with children.

Continue reading “Yala with the Kids: A guide to the most fun your child can have in our jungles”

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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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!

 

 

 

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

 

Mating Leopard – a Tale of Ferocious Courtship!

A detailed account of an amazing encounter with a pair of mating leopards – by Kulu Safaris guest Daphne Goodyear!

A warm welcome to Kulu Safaris’ first guest blogger – Daphne Goodyear! Daphne is from the United States and visited us recently.  It was her first visit to Yala, and the spirits of the jungle connected with her. They offered Daphne an iconic wildlife experience — an exclusive and close sighting of a pair of mating leopards. Below is her detailed account of how the sighting unfolded. Thank you Daphne for sharing!

All photographs are property of Daphne Goodyear. 

 

Kulu Safaris Game Drive
Yala National Park
February 2016
Traveling through Yala National Park on a Kulu Safari was a first rate, extraordinary and
fabulous experience. Searching for animal sightings is very exciting because one never knows what will be seen around the next corner!
On one of our safaris into Yala National Park, our experienced driver from Kulu Safari
Camp, made a detour down a side road where there were no other vehicles. As we approached a thicket, my friend, Norma, spotted the very back end of a Leopard disappearing into the underbrush. She immediately said, “Stop!”
Our driver must have known where the Leopard would emerge, as he immediately made
a U turn, drove a short distance, positioned the vehicle towards an open field and switched off the engine. We began our wait. At that moment we had no idea what a treat was in store for us.
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The male was a fine specimen. The female picked her mate wisely!

It was not long before a male Leopard walked out into the open not far from the front of our vehicle. We were all mesmerized! Because the Leopard was in close proximity, we could watch his every graceful step. The beauty of his golden spotted body defied his well-known ferocious hunting techniques.

Instead of disappearing, the Leopard lay down in the middle of the open field right in front of us. Not long afterwards, what appeared? A female Leopard! We simply could not believe we were seeing these two magnificent wild animals right in front of our eyes.

 

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The female begins her ritual of getting him interested.
Out came my camera with the long lens! For the next forty-five minutes we watched these two Leopards conduct a mating dance, as I snapped one picture after another. How interesting it was observing the male Leopard showing absolutely no interest in the female. He lay there in the field as if nothing was going on around him. This tactic amused us all. The female Leopard would nudge him, lay down beside him, walk on top of him, circle him, and nip at him…no reaction.
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And boy, did he play hard to get! The female snarls, probably in annoyance!
Then she’d walk away, as if to say, “I am no longer interested.” Yet moments later she’d was back frolicking with the object of her affections. This happened over and over again. The male Leopard continued to lay there stoically, un-moved by her advances, acting as if she were invisible. This Mating Dance was fascinating to watch.
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Come on boy !

The male Leopard finally came to life. With little fanfare he mounted the female consummating their relationship three time right in front of our astonished eyes.

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Finally, mating begins. A pair of leopard can stay and hunt together for several days during courtship, before going their separate ways.

During copulation, the male Leopard bit down on the female Leopard’s neck causing her to make a loud roar. Once he dismounted, the female Leopard growled loudly again and swatted him one good! The entire process took less than 30 seconds. After it was over, the female would lay on her back with her feet in the air for a few minutes…a very relaxing pose. Then the mating dance would begin all over again.

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Leopard mating rituals usually don’t end with the politest of pleasantries! Here, the male gets swatted as he dismounts.

 

It is an understatement to say we were mesmerized. Watching these two magnificent wild animals putting on this show was magical. Our incredible good fortune to witness this mating dance was an extraordinary moment in time for my three friends and me. And, in approximately three and a half months, Leopard cubs should be prancing around their mother in Yala National Park. A big treat yet to come for future safari-goers.

 

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Rolling over on her back is a common post-mating ritual amongst females leopard, and is suspected to be essential to improve the chances of fertility.

Our Kulu Safari Camp experience was awesome as we saw many different animals, beautiful birds and gorgeous flora and fauna everywhere. But the biggest thrill of all was the Leopard’s mating dance. An experience my friends and I will never forget.

Curious about the Kulu Experience? 

Visit us at www.kulusafaris.com or write to us at safari@kulusafaris.com