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.