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Lifetime of passion, inspired by wild cats of Ceylon

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By Chitral Jayatilake

Inspired by photography, influenced by my father Asoka Jayatilake, his friends, late Sumitta Amarasinghe and late Dr. Nihal Fernando, I began my journey into the wilds of Sri Lanka at an early age of just 11. Soon these vacation-based trips would grow to be more frequent, and the safaris at Yala gently turning from seeing all that is wild to a focused attempt to see, observe and photograph the prince of Yala – leopards.

After two decades of tracking these amazing carnivores, I dreamt of an opportunity to observe them during their part of the day – which is just after sunset.

It was then that I got an inquiry from Ammonite UK to film Yala’s leopards at night for Nat Geo Wild. With great excitement, meticulous arrangements were made with DWC clearance and handpicked drivers and guides to conduct this amazing effort, tracking the top cat through infrared and thermal imaging technology.

The drivers were thoroughly trained in the use of night-vision goggles and driving by IR aided vision, and with jeeps modified with balcony doors and heavy camera mounts welded for stability, we ventured into the darkness hoping to see these elusive cats and their nocturnal behaviour.

And we weren’t disappointed. The subsequent 47 days and nights yielded over 200 sightings of leopard, and we peeked into their secret lives recording amazing behaviour never filmed before.

The subsequent documentary, aired on Nat Geo Wild and titled ‘Night Stalkers,’ revealed amazing tolerance among male leopards with their semi-grown male cubs. While the female cubs were greeted by dominant males with gentle caressing. The young male cubs had to always be more cautious while they were greeted with the occasional snarl and swipe from their probable fathers. The crew also observed social time spent by leopards as a family at night along with the male relaxing slightly away from the pack.

I later inquired from Dr. Luke Hunter, Head of Panthera worldwide, regarding this behaviour and he commented that in a few locations in the world, where prey is abundant, males have evolved to tolerate growing male cubs much longer than usual. It was heartening to see Yala among such places ranking alongside Mala Mala game reserve.

Childhood dream

I’ve dreamed of filming with the elite BBC-Natural History Unit from way back during my school years.

It was then that I began a dialogue with Nick Lyon of BBC-NHU regarding another night shoot at Yala, planned for 2013. After a year-long negotiation and with all permits secured, we were readying ourselves to welcome the crew when, alas, the Yala Park was closed on 1 September 2013 after an absence of four years.

It took perhaps all my persuasion skills to arrive at a solution, but we had to divert the first week’s filming to Wilpattu for security reasons. It was a blessing in disguise to film at Wilpattu again at night, as no team had observed leopards nocturnally, at this amazing reserve.

Wilpattu was exciting, with one male leopard once approaching the filming jeep almost within 10 feet, which had the crew in a real frenzy.

Was that just curiosity or intentional aggression we didn’t find out, but I was happy to console the cameraman that it was just a curious adult homing in on his aftershave, which just about calmed things on a high adrenaline nocturnal adventure. The subsequent footage decorated the Monsoon series filmed across eight countries spanning 30 months of production.

Habituating leopards

I believe intentional habituating can be achieved and this began happening at Yala almost by accident when a young band of photographers began tracking Yala’s cats way back in the early nineties. Well-behaved observers who understand how to approach leopards and conduct themselves in their presence can have a very positive influence on females and their young ones.

Sadly, this isn’t something which can be done any longer with unprecedented numbers of jeeps entering the park, while most drivers are in a maddening rush to get as close as one can to the leopards, that scare most of these elusive cats, driving them towards cover.

I was privileged to be part of a generation when rush hour at Yala would have a maximum of thirty jeeps as opposed to over two hundred at present. With no controls to limit the number of vehicles entering the park at any given time, the visitors aren’t seeing the best behaviour of most animals, even leopards. As a single irresponsible encounter with a young cub can drive it to seclusion – today, we are depriving ourselves of enjoying the natural occurrences in this magical wilderness and cannot even begin to compare it to the amazing encounters seen and recorded a decade back.

Leopard numbers 

at Yala

It’s a curious question often asked by many and unfortunately, most often answered inaccurately. For reasons best untold, I’ve enjoyed hearing the wrong statistics being shared as accurate numbers as they aren’t something best shared across the table.

But with many studies conducted, amongst which we at Nature Trails have contributed via sponsoring the leopard research initiative in 2014 till early 2015, I feel the much-visited Block 1 is home to approximately 50 plus leopards with half this number being cubs less than 20 months of age. When compared to the extent of Block 1 spanning 30,000 acres, this seems a very high density where mathematical probability indicates having a leopard every 2.5 square kilometres.

Territorial males can be a handful among this, with not more than big boys sharing areas approximately between 23-24 sq. kilometres per male home range. While female ranges can be much less, in an extent of around 8-10 sq. kilometres.

These numbers once again point towards the fact that Block 1 has very unusual densities supported by abundant prey that occurs as a result of a man-made habitat dotted with water holes that traps rain water that hosts much of the herbivores inside this amazing wilderness. Fed heavily by the north east monsoon that floods this parched terrain by mid-November, the park receives scant showers during the inter monsoon period until the April rains arrive on the back of the South West monsoon which is much lighter in its abundance in Yala.

Over the years, we have observed two peaks of mating among leopards: First, the height of drought by July till early August and followed soon after by the heavy rains which seizes in early December. The females will spend solitary lives after mating and usually give birth to two cubs and occasionally three in a litter. The den sites can be moved during the early days for threats from bears and wild boar as the mother leaves the young alone on her hunts.

The cubs become extremely playful by three months of age, and are seen exploding with energy often in the morning hours. The best age of a leopard is from this stage till it grows to be approximately eighteen months when the mother may leave them alone to fend for themselves. This period is intensely guarded and provided by the mother, and a vital period where the young observes and mimics behaviour of what is safe and unsafe, learning the craft of survival in an inhospitable terrain. This ends as they reach adulthood, and they are pushed to find their own territories, often slipping away from other aggressive males who can threaten their lives.

We see the activities of cubs for months and suddenly they disappear during this traumatic period where they actually grow up to be adult leopards. It’s a make or break time, and some females try to carve out a portion of the mothers’ terrain but life for male cubs is usually a lot tougher. During this period, young males, with their instincts to avoid other males, learn the craft of being the ghosts of the wilderness, avoiding everything including visitors.

The cubs born on the edges of the park’s boundaries are in the most risky position, as they are pushed outside of the protected range, and risks of facing lesser densities of prey as well as human encounters increase. These leopards tend to snatch cattle from the many hundred cattle farms and often fall victim to poisoning and snares.

For the few who can set up their homes within the boundaries of the park, they have the opportunity to live a safer life, as heavy visitation keeps most of the poaching away. Thus there is less risk of snares and plenty of prey within the protected land.

The lives of carnivores are increasingly tough. Perhaps a bit less here in Sri Lanka where leopards sit at the top of the food chain with less risks than their cousins in Africa and India. Yet, the struggle to create your territory and hold this during your prime years for mating and prey, takes a heavy toll, especially among male leopards. Their prime years after thirty-six months gives them about four years of dominance and I’ve seen only a few males that continued to dominate ranges when challenges were mounted by younger transient leopards. Such pressures can be equally experienced by both females and males, whilst the struggles for older males can often be life threatening.

The ‘Cheitya Male’ seen during the mid-nineties and the one-eyed leopard I named as ‘Ivan’, were two such unique males holding territory and stamping their dominance for more than seven long years. These cats were outrageously dominant but when compared to the scientific data gathered by Andrew and Angalie Watson, facts point towards these males, while being dominant, were also visible, and somewhat habituated in comparison to other equally dominant males, holding similar territory, who were much less visible, acting more like grown males in the wild. 

The dominant and more visible chaps were often seen walking passed jeeps just three feet away and ignoring dozens of vehicles, watching them during their evening patrols along their ranges. Thus a notion was created about such specimens as being more dominant, which is somewhat questionable in terms of facts gathered by scientific studies which speak to the contrary.

Wild cats of 

Sri Lanka

Besides their larger cousin, the leopard, there are three more wild cats that roam Sri Lanka’s wilds, namely, the fishing cat, the jungle cat, and the smallest in the wild, the rusty spotted cat. Their much smaller size and vulnerability often makes these amazing wild cats far more nocturnal than leopards with much less chances of habituation.

Fishing cat

The fishing cats are quitewide spread across many climatic zones in the island, with the capital Colombo and its suburbs having a steady population of these secretive cats that use the drains and water ways besides the marshes as their nocturnal highways of movement.

There aren’t many locations where sightings can be predictable, although, about ten kilometres outside the urban zones in the city have plenty of these cats roaming, looking for small mammals and fish, while raiding domestic poultry farms after sundown. The habitat created around a boutique Vil Uyana in the North Central Province gives photographers better chances of seeing this vociferous nocturnal hunter.

Jungle cat

Slightly smaller in body size, but an equally impressive animal, these cats are seen in many dry zone wilderness patches while the Udawalawe National Park gives perhaps the best chances of photographing this impressive predator during early mornings and late evening hours. My experiences of sightings have been predominantly at Udawalawe and Yala national parks while once again, the Vil Uyana terrain gives good opportunities to observe these cats after sun down.

Rusty spotted cat

Almost the size of a domestic cat; small, brisk and lighting fast, Rusties are a common site in the dry zone wilderness but their behavior comes to life well after sun down, making photography a more of a challenging experience. My work with BBC and Nat Geo Wild, filming at night in Yala yielded dozens of sightings after 1900 hrs while even at night, they were faster than the cameraman manning infrared filming gear. I’ve been lucky to see this amazing cat twice during daylight hours in Yala and had the great opportunity of photographing it more towards the ‘Warahana’ end of the Yala National Park.

Their ability to climb trees is second to none, beating a leopard’s skill, and their pocket size makes photography almost a nightmare and a challenge to those keen on capturing all wild cats in our forests.

Among all these cats we are blessed to have in Sri Lanka’s natural world, leopards are the craftiest of them all. Their strength is second to none when compared to their size, they are brilliantly intelligent and blessed with the ideal camouflage and speed. With the ability to climb trees at will and attack with precision, they play a vital role in maintaining the balance of nature in the intricate chain of life inside our wilderness. 

I’ve been drawn like a magnet to watch these amazing cats and still feel the excitement in the presence of one. May these leopards and our wild cats stay wild and free for long, in the wilds of Ceylon.

(This article first appeared in ‘Living Free’, a 196-page book of wildlife photographs by two of the country’s best-known shutterbugs Chitral Jayatilake and Vimukthi Weeratunga.)

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