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!

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