The Leopards of Yala – the unfolding saga

Written By: Radheesh Sellamuttu on October 17, 2014

The Leopards of Yala – the unfolding saga

Written and leopard identification by: Radheesh Sellamuttu (radheesh@leopardtrails.com)
Contributing photographers:
Radheesh Sellamuttu (Managing Director, Leopard Trails)
Indika Nettigama (Game Ranger, Leopard Trails)
Arran Sivarajah (Game Ranger, Leopard Trails)
Avijja Fonseka (Game Ranger, Leopard Trails)
Jerome Kiel (Game Ranger, Leopard Trails)
Buddhilini De Soyza

 

It’s 2014 now, and the high concentration of leopards in some of Sri Lanka’s national parks is old news. The leopards of Yala have played out their dramatic lives on the stage that we call Yala National Park, for an eternity. Over thousands of game drives the Leopard Trails team has had front row seats to witness this drama governed by the big cat’s language of tooth and claw. Yet when will we be able to relate the stories of their private lives in all its intricacy? That day just may have arrived. I feel the need for something far more intellectually and spiritually enlightening than simply recognizing the high concentration of leopards.

The drama unfolds…..

Since early 2012 we have witnessed the massive male leopard known as “Hamu” ageing and despite being surrounded by maturing males inflicting fresh battle wounds, he continues to reign and hold prime territory rich with watering holes and a large prey base. Late 2013 and 2014 saw the birth of three separate sets of cubs in the Varahana area. On one momentous occasion we captured on film, an adult male and female together with their three cubs, a phenomenon seldom seen with leopards. Were all the recent sets of Varahana cubs sired by this huge male that haunts this river front real estate or are the neighboring younger males closing in on the boundaries? Several cubs have been born in the Heenwewa, Gonagala, Uraniya and the Suduwelimulla areas as well. Did all these cubs make it through one of the harshest dry seasons in decades? The young Rakina Wala male cub has not been seen by the Leopard Trails team in over a year now, and I suspect that the arrival of a new cub in this area could indicate that he has not survived. Confirmation that the mother of the young Rakina Wala cub is the same individual as the mother of the new Suduwelimulla cub could confirm its death? The male cubs from the two most recent Rukvilla litters have dispersed to areas beyond where we regularly visit, whilst the female from the first litter is regularly seen near the Buttuwa spill – Akasachaitiya area.

From cubs to kills, and mating leopards to territorial battles, we have been privileged to witness it all. Yet who are these characters and what are their individual stories? Where have they come from and where will they settle? Who will triumph and who will fall victim to the harsh realities of life in the jungle? It is this that I seek to understand, and we now have the ability to piece together this puzzle. Since inception, the Leopard Trails team has systematically documented leopard photographs, behavior, locations and lineages, in a bid to increase our understanding. In many ways for us, this will be the beginning of the story of the private lives of Yala’s leopards.
01-800px 02-copy-800px 03-800px 04-800px 05-copy-800px 06-copy-800px 07-copy-800px

 

These are some of the leopards of Yala Block 1, a strip of jungle in the south east of Sri Lanka that comprises of varying habitats such as scrub plains, rocky outcrops, fresh water lakes, rivers and beaches. All of these leopards depicted here were photographed in 2012 or later. May this serve as an ongoing documentation of identities and lineages of the Leopards of Yala not just to enhance the experience of our guests but to raise awareness of this priceless asset in the name of its future protection. Identification of leopards using spot pattern ratios above the top whisker line is a quick, non-invasive technique that can be understood by a layman and can give insight into home ranges, individual character traits, lifespan in the wild and several other aspects. Whilst the majority of leopards can be identified using the spot pattern ratio identification method alone, I have combined it with other facial spot markings, flank markings, sex, approximate age of the animal as well as the location of the sighting.

It was earlier this year that I visited Londolozi, a private reserve in the Sabi Sand in South Africa where I was witness to the spot pattern ratio ID technique being successfully used. After studying the leopards identified in Londolozi, I decided to apply this technique to the Leopards of Yala and Wilpattu.

Block 1 of Yala where we conduct safaris is just 14,000 hectares and the majority of the leopards pictured here live in the northern section of Block 1. This is not to say that the density is higher in the northern section; we just spend more time in the northern section due to its proximity to the Leopard Trails camp. In addition, a significant portion of Block 1 that lies west of the Sithulpahuwa road is not accessible to the public and therefore this study will probably exclude many of the inhabitants of this region. The above facts along with the identities documented here are testament to the high density of leopards that is quite often spoken about with regards to Yala. Being the apex predator and having a plentiful food source, leopards in Yala have smaller, overlapping territories than their African counterparts.

This first blog post on leopard ID’s is simply a snapshot, it is the first step i.e. to identify a few distinct individuals and their home ranges through location of sightings. I have saved a more detailed commentary on each animal for future material that we will share with you. I am also yet to find the time to go through gigabytes of leopard photographs that we have on our servers! Point being, this will be an ongoing process that will be constantly refined and updated where the end goal would be to identify not only individuals and home ranges but sexes (where not already determined), approximate date of birth, date of last sighting, and lineages where possible. If you would like to contribute your own photographs of leopards in Yala or Wilpattu to this ongoing chronicle please email me at radheesh@leopardtrails.com. I also hope to share our “Leopards of Wilpattu” blog post with you in the near future.

Sri Lanka is a small island experiencing rapid development and with it comes habitat loss for its rich diversity of wildlife. For twenty years, since childhood for many of us, our team of founders and rangers have had a passion for the wilderness. We hope that through work like this we can raise awareness on the urgent need for protection of our country’s spectacular array of wildlife, for many generations to come.

In the coming years, Leopard Trails will continue to offer premium experiential wildlife tourism with a fun, immersive, interactive and educational experience, through a deeper understanding of the species that inhabit our jungles.