Leopard Safaris in Sri Lanka
The month of August saw several events observed that are hardly seen in the wild, either because they are a rare occurrence, or because most animals hide away in the dense forest away from the prying eyes of human onlookers. On separate Mahoora Leopard Safari expeditions, three such sightings stand out owing to the animals observed – Leopard in Wilpattu, Saltwater Crocodiles in Yala, and Axis Deer in Yala.
Leopard Having a Feast
Naturalists in Sri Lanka rarely get a chance to glimpse a leopard in the wild feeding after a hunt, but we got lucky while on a Leopard Safari in Wilpattu National Park, as one of these big cats – Panthera pardus kotiya, the Sri Lankan Leopard – was seen through a thicket feasting itself on the carcass of a wild boar – Sus scrofa cristatus – it had caught earlier.
This was an exciting moment for all of us, as it is indeed a rare sight to see leopards having a meal in the wild. Leopards are known to shy away from humans and other such perceived threats when they are having a meal. There are two reasons why leopards hide away in solitude. The first is to protect its precious catch. If a larger predator takes away its meal, or if a gang of scavengers steal its meal, it could be that the leopard will starve for several days. The second reason is to find a good spot to help relax after such a heavy meal. Since most of a leopard’s diet is meat, the digestion process uses up a lot of energy, so the leopard has to rest and breathe heavily in order to aid digestion. Leopards will pick a safe location so that they are not vulnerable to attack. Sri Lankan Leopards are the only known subspecies that does not carry their catch up a tree since they have the apex predator status.
Add One More Item to Saltwater Crocodiles’ Menu
The Yala National Park is known for its impressive range of birds and mammals, but perhaps the most feared predator – by humans and by animals alike – is the Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus). Generally known to lurk just under the surface of the water to ambush and devour unsuspecting mammals and water birds that congregate around rivers, we can now add one more previously unknown item to the croc’s diet: Frogs. We saw this truly astounding phenomenon during a Leopard Safari in Yala National Park as we observed crocodiles hunting frogs for more than an hour at Kotabendi Wewa.
At first glance, neither of us could figure out what these large reptiles were up to, but upon closer inspection, it dawned on us. A crocodile usually eats a mammal such as a deer or a wild boar, and this will last them a few days. It is unknown how many frogs a full grown crocodile has to eat as a substitute for its usual diet. We can only postulate that the said crocodiles change their feeding patterns and behaviour to suit the environment, eating more often since it has to eat less.
If there was any lesson to learn from this observation, it is that even for the dreaded crocodile, nature has given a method to adapt according to its circumstances.
Visitors on Leopard Safaris to Yala National Park rarely leave without seeing Sri Lankan Axis deer (Axis axis ceylonensis). These innocent-looking herbivores are a common sight, and form an important part of the eco system, both as foragers to control the growth of plant life, and as a source of food to animals further up the food chain, such as Sri Lankan Leopards, Sri Lankan Sloth Bears (Melursus ursinus inornatus), Wild Boar, and Saltwater Crocodiles. Axis deer may not be as glamorous as the Leopard or as rare as a Sloth Bear, but observation up close is next to impossible, as these alert deer will flee at the sight, sound, or scent of a human approaching.
During a Leopard Safari, we managed to observe behaviour among Sri Lankan Axis Deer that had not been observed before. Axis deer usually herd in groups of several females (hinds), a few calves, and one adult male (stag). In this instance, we saw four hinds, a few calves, and one stag that came to drink water from the Darshana wewa in the Yala National Park. A few minutes after quenching its thirst, the stag chased away three of the hinds and the calves from its presence, leaving one behind, with which it rutted. An Axis Deer’s courtship and reproductive behaviour is generally well documented, but the removal of other hinds from the immediate area is behaviour that is new to our naturalists. We thus consider this a rare sighting, and have very few theories about it.
August at Its Best
The three animal behaviours above have all been observed in August during Leopard Safaris to Sri Lanka’s major national parks. The Leopard sighting was fortuitous for our naturalists, but is expected behaviour for Leopards. The two sightings at Yala – Crocodiles eating frogs and Axis Deer Stags demanding privacy – are rare and unexpected, making them even more compelling and fascinating. Maybe it is the change of weather patterns, with a few dry months coming in the near future. Maybe it is nature putting on a show before Yala National Park closes for a month for maintenance, as it does every year. Whatever the reasons may be, we are elated to have been there when they happened, and feel privileged to be in a unique position to tell the world about it.
Mahoora Naturalist: Saranga
Written by: Nirmal Kirtisinghe