The temperament between the two species has been known to vary; while Mugger crocodiles have been observed to show a lighter temperament (due to being more social), the Saltwater crocodile has been observed to display a more aggressive temperament, owing to its territorial nature. Both crocodylians however, are known to be man-eaters.
Picking up from our last piece on Sri Lankan crocodylians, the following blog shares insights to the traits of our apex reptilian predator in hunting its prey and attacks on humans. Having existed virtually unchanged for the past 100 million years, the Saltwater (‘salties’) and Marsh (‘Mugger’) crocodiles that are found in Sri Lanka have been identified over recent years to display traits distinct to each species. Continue reading “Part II on Sri Lanka’s Crocodiles: Behavioral traits of an apex predator”
Often referred to as the closest living creature from the period of dinosaurs, crocodiles date back some 230 million years, and have existed virtually unchanged for the past 65 million years. Lead researcher Dinal Samarasinghe gives us insights in the first of our series covering these ancient reptiles.
Often referred to as the closest living creature from the period of dinosaurs, crocodiles date back some 230 million years, and have existed virtually unchanged for the past 65 million years. Leading crocodile researcher Dinal Samarasinghe gives us insights in the first of our series covering these ancient reptiles.
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.
“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.
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!
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 Wilpattu – that have coastal boundaries.
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.
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?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jeana, our of Kulu’s team of young guides, recaps her first ‘recce’ into the jungle with the seniors on her team.
Manjula (one of our senior guides) informs me that we have a young couple checking into our Yala camp the next day, and that they have requested a hike. With the help of Preme (Preme is an operational wizard, and one of the pillars of Kulu Safaris) they will carry out a recce into the jungle behind camp to plan and check a new route on which to take the guests. It was part notice, part tentative invitation to gauge my courage I felt, so my obvious response was “What time should I be ready?”
We set off at about 10am, Manjula with a backpack and water, myself with a backpack and water, and Preme only carrying just a “keththa”, (Sri Lankan equivalent of a machete) to clear our path. The walk is approximately 6km one way.
After we veer off the main road that leads to camp, we find a game trail that leads through small shrubs and bushes. The further we walk, the shrub turns into thicker jungle and the Keththa comes in handy. Soon, we are on an incline, like intermediate rock climbing, and the recce begins to feel like jungle boot-camp. Twenty minutes in, we pause to rehydrate and catch our breath, and have a seat on a flat bit of rock. The view sinks in — a typical, rural Sri Lankan vista comprised of random paddy fields carved into the fringe of the jungle, man-made lakes, and the ever-present, brilliant white village temple. To the other side, Yala National Park stretches into a rolling green carpet and disappears into the horizon. Manjula and I drink water but Preme says “no thank you”. (I feel that that is his ex-army stamina).
Deeper into the walk, you become more aware of the nuances of the jungle, like the different bird calls, details on the trees, vibrantly coloured butterflies and small insects scuttling around. As we rest again, the view from higher up is even more magnificent. A perfect spot to look around below with binoculars, (of course Manjula has brought binoculars – if anyone catch a Kulu guide unprepared, I’ll treat them to a pint!). We spot a pair of Brown-headed Barbets; this time even the stoic Preme gives in to his thirst.
Walking again for the last time before reaching the turnaround point, we notice a fair bit of elephant dung scattered on the ground. Preme examines how old the dung is, and luckily it’s been at least a day since the elephant has traversed over our path. That’s one fit elephant to be ambling up this slope!
At the top of the hill, there is a beautiful outcrop of rock shaded by trees and we lie down and spend about an hour there. The view and tranquil feeling is a wonderful reward for the climb. It’s almost addictive. It was my “A-ha!” moment, where it all fell into place — what I want to do with my life, and how I want to live etc… maybe I’ll write about this epiphany in a different post in the near future!
Tomorrow we plan to bring a packed snack and a thermal bottle of tea for the guests. (I wish we had done that today!). There are a few trees up here good for climbing too, something fun to do if kids ever come on this walk. (I later shared my idea with Javana and his response was a terse “certainly not!”).
On the way down, as we take note of small landmarks so we remember the exact path tomorrow, we see two eagles soaring almost parallel to us; a Crested Hawk Eagle and a Black Eagle (a rare sighting in the Katagamuwa area!!). Being about 150 meters up really does make a difference to bird watching. At eye level, we could clearly see how raptors subtlely adjust the tips of their wings to control their flight! Further down, we stop to set up a camera trap. (Stay tuned for a future blog post on our first camera trap findings!). Manju was eager to show off a few tips and tricks of that he learnt while working with Steve Winter on the Camera Trap project in Yala last year. Clearing a small area and disguising the camera with foliage, we switch it on and leave with exciting anticipation of what we might see on film in a few days.
The trek down has its own challenges, but manageable by a moderately experienced trekker, and much easier than going up. Walking back to camp after about 3 hours, it struck me that we had built up a ravenous appetite — lunch was going to be good! The guests are definitely going to love this!
***The couple that did the walk have hiked and trekked in many places around the world and rated it a Level 5 hike and totally loved it. Makes me feel like a pro!***
This blog post was written by Jeana – our junior, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic naturalist who joined us recently. Jeana’s posts are her own perspective of life in the jungle and experiences with Kulu.