Prisoner to a princePhotographer : Arran Sivarajah (Game ranger, Leopard Trails) / Radheesh Sellamuttu (MD, Leopard Trails)
There are scarce moments, epic moments, emotional moments and then there are moments with a leopard and a pangolin interacting! The consensus amongst our team is that it will be tough to top this sighting for another ten year period. In my years of guiding across several continents I have always kept a look out for the elusive pangolin (manis crassicaudata) and it was just a few months ago that we at Leopard Trails finally ticked off this strange termite eating scaly critter from our bucket list. Dancing in the safari vehicle with a sense of victory is accepted only when you see a pangolin.
The intensity of our next pangolin sighting however would belittle our first sighting. Not only did we get a clearer longer look, but the pangolin this time around was in the paws of a young male leopard!
On the morning of the 30th of July with our guests Michael, Stine, August, and Karla, we headed into the park unaware of what mother-nature had in store for us. Turning a corner into a dry flood plain was a young leopard known to us through our research as Sella. Sella was sitting down next to his new found toy, the Pangolin! In case you are wondering, we named the cub Suduweli Sella (or Sella for short) due to it first being seen as a tiny cub in the Suduwelimulla area by our founder/MD who is fondly known to us as Sella. At this initial sighting the leopard was just a few months old and was captured crossing the road with its mother who we refer to as the Diganwala female. We believe that the Diganwala female had a cub in 2012 which did not survive to adulthood and that Sella was her next cub. Due to the location of the Diganwala female and Sella the cub it is possible that Sella’s father was the large old leopard known as Hamu (the leopard on our logo) however we will never know for sure. Our latest practice is to set a Google calendar reminders for 5 months after we witness a mating. That way if we do come across very young cubs in 5 months with the female from the mating then we can be fairly certain about who the father is (or at least narrow it down since females will occasionally mate with two males around the same period to trick both males into thinking that they are the father – an infanticide insurance scheme!)
Pangolins are solitary, termite eating, scale armoured mammals from the order “pholidota”. Its existence has been threatened for many years by the illegal animal trade, as vermin, as well as the scales being used for jewellery (in certain parts of the world). The Indian pangolin, or “thick tailed pangolin” can be found throughout the forests of India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan, and its’ scales vary in colour depending on the soil type of its whereabouts and similar to an armadillo it will curl up into a ball exposing only its scaly armour for protection. As a strictly nocturnal animal the pangolin is nearly impossible to witness on a day time game drive.
Leopards are curious animals, as cats are, and it was clear that our young leopard Sella had never come across this strange looking creature before. Each time the Pangolin called truce, and tried to walk away from the young leopard, the leopard repeatedly jumped on it causing the pangolin to roll up into a self protecting ball, leaving only tough, scaly armour for the leopard to tackle with absolute failure.
We observed the leopard-pangolin interaction, at times trying hard not to laugh. Twnety minutes followed and finally the pangolin made a hasty escape into the thicket. We will never know if the scaly creature escaped or not but we will settle for a once in a lifetime opportinty of seeing a young leopard interact with a pangolin!
The Leopard Trails team sends many high fives to our guests who witnessed this sighting and to all those around the world who understand what a privilege it was to get a rare glimpse into the secret lives of these two amazing creatures!