The Udawalawe National Park’s elephant population is not its only attraction; the park is also home to a wide range of flora and fauna, some of which are endemic. Small mammals such as golden palm civets, Asian palm civets, toque macaques, tufted grey langurs and several species of rodents such as Indian hare and the endemic Ceylon spiny mouse are found in Udawalawe. Larger mammals, such as Sri Lankan sambar deer, Sri Lankan axis deer, Indian muntjac, Sri Lankan spotted chevrotain, wild boar, Sri Lankan sloth bear, and water buffalo are also found in the national park. Udawalawe National Park is also known habitat of three of Sri Lanka’s wild cat species - the rusty spotted cat, the fishing cat, and the Sri Lankan Leopard.

While it is well documented that Udawalawe is home to a number of leopards (exact numbers unknown), the bushy terrain and rock formations make it virtually impossible to sight these cats – which use stealth both as a form of defence and for ambushing prey – in the national park. National Parks such as Yala and Wilpattu have more grassland and flat areas that make leopards visible, but there is very little of that in Udawalawe. Sri Lankan leopards, like other species of leopards found across the world, are experts at adaptation, which is one of the many reasons that they are among the most abundant and widespread of big cats in the world. We can see this on a global level when we compare leopards in Africa and Asia and we can also see this in a local level when we compare leopards living in different national parks in a small country such as Sri Lanka.

This is a story about one rare sighting seen during a Mahoora Udawalawe Morning Safari recently.

A little bit of history about the park is necessary to set the scene for this story. The area that is now known as Udawalawe National Park was not always a protected piece of forest. Until its classification as a National Park, some areas had been used in what is known as “chena cultivation”, where an area of forest is cleared, usually using fire, to grow crops. This age-old practice has since stopped within the park’s boundaries, but there still are a few signs of civilisation left within its borders. A few examples include three coconut trees found in an area that once contained a village and the names of the areas such as Galkoriya (Literally translated as “Stone Quarry”).

Galkoriya, once the site of a quarry that supplied granite for the construction industry, still contains a large granite boulder that can be seen during a jeep safari from about 20 metres (65 feet) away.

The Mahoora safari started as usual at about 5.30am – just before first light – and came to the Galkoriya area at about 6:10am. We had by then heard the alarm calls of axis deer, but we paid little attention to them at the time. As we were approaching Galkoriya, we noticed that the alarm calls intensified, and that something was frightening the deer enough to send out repeated alarm calls. We stopped the Jeep and looked around using our binoculars, trying to get a close look at what’s happening. At about 6:15am, we spotted what was causing the commotion among the deer in the area. An adult female leopard was seen strolling atop the boulder. It did not stay for too long, as it was not used to humans and the loud noise of their metal contraptions. Unlike the leopards resident at the Yala National Park, leopards in national parks such as Udawalawe are shy, and retreat from the sound of safari jeeps and humans in general as they perceive us as a threat. We noticed that the leopardess descended the rock on a side that was accessible by a road, and quickly made our way around the rock to the area where we could expect to see it.

The sight that beheld us was almost too good to be true. The leopardess was flanked by two cubs – which we estimated at about 6 or 7 months old – and was acting on its maternal instincts to protect its cubs from danger. We took the opportunity to watch and photograph this little family of leopards before they walked away into the bush away from the prying eyes of humans.

The experience left us in high spirits and with a sense of achievement, but the real story behind it is that nature will always find a way to surprise us. The conservation of wildlife such as Sri Lankan leopards is a long-term continuing process, and every effort should be made to share experiences such as what we had with the rest of the world.

Naturalist: Puwathara Jayawardena
Written by: Nirmal Kirtisinghe