Sri Lankan Leopard Safari
Land monitors (Sinhalese: Thalagoya) have an impressive habitation range, being found even in the highly urbanised areas of Sri Lanka – they are not an uncommon site in Colombo and its suburbs – despite that jungle being of the concrete variety. These adaptable lizards may grow up to 6 feet (180cm) long even in inhospitable environments such as drains and sewers below the asphalt roads of the big city. Although not a protected species in Sri Lanka, the hunting and killing of Land Monitors in the cities is minimum, as they are hardly an invasive species, and will generally stay away from humans. They are, however, known to prey on smaller mammals such as rats and mice, helping control the levels of vermin in populated areas. The downside of this is that they might hunt smaller pets – puppies, kittens, rabbits, chickens etc.
Big city life might not agree 100% with the feeding habits of land monitors, but in Yala National Park, they have an environment where they can thrive, feasting off smaller mammals and birds, and amphibians such as frogs.
Land Monitors are, like all lizards, cold-blooded. This means that they need to cool down and warm up their systems by exposure to the warm or the cold, as the case may be. You may be able to spot one lounging in the sun to get warm after lying for several hours in a cold place. Such an incident happened recently on a Mahoora Leopard Safari. We took our guests – a British couple – on a typical Mahoora experience. Near Koma Wewa, we saw a sizable land monitor lounging in the sun, soaking up the heat on the shore of the Koma Wewa. We stopped the jeep to observe this giant lizard from a distance.
And then it happened.
A few silent minutes of watching the land monitor lounging was followed by an experience none of us had personally had before. It was shocking and beautiful at the same time. Unbeknownst to us, a Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) had been stalking the lizard for a while. It attacked with all the ferocity you would expect a hunting big cat to have, and with unbelievable precision and strength. The leopard shook the big lizard from side to side, all the while holding it by its neck. Death came in a quick couple of minutes. Land monitors, like most large lizards, have very muscular bodies, a thick scaly skin and sharp claws protecting them, but neither defence nor attack helped this one. In the end, the leopard prevailed. The stronger animal – the apex predator – had shown that it is not to be messed with.
This is hardly unknown behaviour for Leopards, as they sit on the top of the food chain and, resorting to animals such as land monitors and even carrion when times are hard.
Our guests were taken aback. The initial shock of seeing an animal they were just about building a mental connection with within the last few minutes taken in an instant made them shudder. We could hear gasps and exclamations from our guests. This kind of experience is undoubtedly shocking, but rare to see. It is, however, nature at its brutal best. This is the kind of opportunity naturalists – both professional and amateur – wait for all their lives. Our guests were lucky they got to witness this event from the safety of our Safari Jeep.
Incidents such as this happen often in the wild, where the rule is eat or be eaten. It is a part of the awe-inspiring way nature balances itself. We consider ourselves privileged to bear witness to this instance of nature’s fury from a safe distance away.
Information provided by: Nandakumara, Camp Manager, Mahoora Tented Safari Camps Yala
Written by: Nirmal Kirtisinghe
Image Copyrights: Ishan Thrimanne