The promise of Wilpattu

Written By: Radheesh Sellamuttu (Managing Director, Leopard Trails) on September 22, 2014 Photographer : Radheesh Sellamuttu and Indika Nettigama (Game Ranger, Leopard Trails)

“Natta” performed for us that Sunday evening. As he always does. He belongs to an era of habituated leopards in Wilpattu national park, all born post war, and relatively comfortable around vehicles. “Natta saved the day again” jokes Leopard Trails ranger Indika on a regular basis. He is referring to quiet days where “Natta” appears out of nowhere and performs. “Ey Radheesh, Natta must have been a tracker in his previous life!” he says as we discuss today’s sightings over the phone.

We were parked at Maha Pattassa at dusk that Sunday when grey langur alarm calls broke the silence. The calls intensified and the spotted deer below panicked, stampeding towards us from across the villu (lake). “He’s here” says Indika as he looks through his binoculars across the water. “Natta” had broken cover across the villu and was scent marking below a tree. He calmly paces towards the water for a drink before nightfall, surrounded by five female peacocks! The forest made sure to announce that he was on the move.

 

"Natta" breaks cover and smells the ground before scent marking

“Natta” breaks cover and smells the ground before scent marking

The five peahens kept the leopard well within view at all times

The five peahens kept the leopard well within view at all times

 

Moments later he sets off, changing course along the way. Indika repositions the vehicle anticipating his exact exit point from the villu and his instinct pays off. “Natta” broke cover with little caution, appearing over a small sand mound before collapsing before us into the fine white sand that is characteristic of Wilpattu. He spends several minutes grooming and playfully rolling around on his back as if he enjoyed our company and as if he enjoyed looking at us upside down!

A less than cautious approach as he exits the villu onto the road where we are parked.

A less than cautious approach as he exits the villu onto the road where we are parked.

"Hypnotised" He couldn't resist a quick moment to roll in the soft sand as he went about his business.

“Hypnotised” He couldn’t resist a quick moment to roll in the soft sand as he went about his business.

A guest once said that leopard photographs in Wilpattu can look unnatural due to the white sand looking like snow. You can see why he had this opinion. Note the 3:2 spot pattern

A guest once said that leopard photographs in Wilpattu can look unnatural due to the white sand looking like snow. You can see why he had this opinion. Note the 3:2 spot pattern

It was soon time to move on for “Natta”. He passes within a few feet, gazing up high into the Land Cruiser as if communicating that he had to end this rendezvous to carry on his purpose as a young male. Without hesitation the prime lenses are dumped and phone cameras are picked up for a quick Instagram.

The previous day we slowed the pace of our safari taking a moment to point out a lichen, said to thrive in regions where the air is cleanest. We sat at Borupan villu watching painted storks, egrets and black headed ibis squabble over prime real estate for fishing. The shrinking villu is the stage for this drama that unfolds day after day in the dry season. I catch a cotton pygmy goose and juvenile pacific golden plover as I scan the horizon. The highlight that day however was surely the sighting of an Sri Lankan chameleon (chamaeleo zeylanicus), or perhaps it was the Eurasian otter (lutra lutra) seen at night near camp. I had only ever seen a chamleon in Africa so it was a real treat to see one at home. It appeared to be dancing: left fore and right hind moved together, followed by a rock back and forth, and then right fore and left hind. I couldn’t help but imagine playing a beat to its fascinating locomotion which it uses to appear like foliage swaying in the wind! That night by the campfire I chat to our guests including the Gilberts, vets from just south of Manchester, about the promise of Wilpattu and how it compared to Yala. At the time of writing the Gilberts have checked out with nine leopard sightings in two days. I left after having seen seven.

The juvenile pacific golden plover seen scurrying around.

The juvenile pacific golden plover seen scurrying around.

7

Perhaps the strangest of animal eyes belong to the chamelon. Like a conical turret mounted weapon its eyes pop out and move independently to each other allowing a 360 degree field of vision. As it faces its back to us this character keeps his right eye fixated on us whilst his left eye watches its prey on a low hanging branch.

Perhaps the strangest of animal eyes belong to the chamelon. Like a conical turret mounted weapon its eyes pop out and move independently to each other allowing a 360 degree field of vision. As it faces its back to us this character keeps his right eye fixated on us whilst his left eye watches its prey on a low hanging branch.

 

Although rarely seen the otter has one of the widest distributions of palearctic mammals.

Although rarely seen the otter has one of the widest distributions of palearctic mammals.

What is it like to spend two nights with Leopard Trails Wilpattu as a guest? I wanted to find out for myself. Ironically, two years into launching Leopard Trails I found myself having lost touch with Wilpattu. The business of launching and managing a start-up in Yala had consumed all my free time. So last week I set out to experience two nights at Leopard Trails Wilpattu as a guest, avoiding chores at camp, and seeing for myself how it compared to the experience at Yala.

This brings me to my conclusion, not just from my recent visit but from several months of research. Wilpattu deserves more credit in the public domain for what it has become through post war habituation of its wildlife. At present it is the “insiders” that know its potential. I believe word will spread over time through social media, blogging, SEO, word of mouth and other forms of marketing. Wilpattu is closer to Colombo and the main airport, and closer to the more common tourist route than Yala. Quality of leopard sightings as measured by time spent viewing a leopard, and the number of vehicles viewing a leopard, is arguably better than Yala. Average number of sightings per safari is on par with Yala as far as our data is concerned. We believe that leopards born post war in Wilpattu are more habituated (like some of Yala’s leopards) due to growing up in the presence of vehicles, compared with those that were seen during the cease fire time when I used to visit more often. For those of you who are not aware, Wilpattu had been closed to visitors for several decades up until the war finished (apart from a small window of a few years during the most recent cease fire). More kilometres of roadway reduces the chance of meeting other vehicles thereby preserving the wilderness experience. The park roads are more sparsely located meaning tip offs from other vehicles make it harder to lead to a rush of vehicles at sightings. Finally, the park has plenty to offer in its scenic villus, great birding and a plethora of other mammals and reptiles. However, as with any park, we believe tourists need to be guided by professionals to enhance their experience and to ensure ethics are maintained and rules are not broken. We believe Wilpattu holds the key to the future of leopard tourism in Sri Lanka unless action is taken to address many of the issues facing Yala.

An elephant feeds on the lush green grass making sure to shake off any mud that is uprooted along with the grass.

An elephant feeds on the lush green grass making sure to shake off any mud that is uprooted along with the grass.

The crested serpant eagle

The crested serpant eagle

The barking deer are an example of an animal that has definitely become more habituated to vehicles over time.

The barking deer are an example of an animal that has definitely become more habituated to vehicles over time.

The leopard described above has been fondly named “Natta,” probably by a local enthusiast or a wildlife department tracker due to the injury he had on his tail (Natta means tail in Sinhalese). Since the inception of Leopard Trails we have been fortunate enough to gather a significant volume of data on leopards and I came to the realisation that there is a need for a more scientific naming convention to properly document identities and lineages of leopards. Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to visit Londolozi, a reserve in the Sabi Sand, South Africa, where I spent some time understanding the naming convention and id technique used there. A few days ago I contacted Mike Sutherland who guided me in Londolozi and Mike confirms my view that “Natta” would be referred to as a 3:2 male. 3:2 being the ratio of the number of spots (left:right if you are facing the leopard) above the top whisker line and on either side of the snout. I will discuss this technique in a follow up blog post and share some of the data we have gathered. For now we will be referring to Natta as the Panikka 3:2 male. Panikka villu being the area he was regularly seen as a cub.

The Panikka 3:2 male fully relaxed in our presence. What a privilege to be able to cross paths with this amazing creature.

The Panikka 3:2 male fully relaxed in our presence. What a privilege to be able to cross paths with this amazing creature.

Watching the Panikka 3:2 male it is easy to see the cub in him as he gazes up to glance at us in the vehicle. He is however now an independent male believed to be transient (with no fixed territory). Time will tell what will become of him and how his individual character will be shaped as he matures into a bolder fully grown male in this post war era.