To Spot a Leopard

Sri Lanka is home to a variety of ecosystems and animals. While elephants are the most popular out of the island’s animals, did you know that we also boast of the world’s highest density of leopards?

The Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), the one we usually refer to as kotiya or diviya, features a tawny or rusty yellow coat with dark spots and tiny rosettes if compared to an Indian leopard which has a pale yellow to yellowish brown coat. It’s an endangered endemic apex predator that has evolved in the absence of a dominant competitor, which explains the relatively large stature of the Sri Lankan leopard. It is said that the island’s leopard population has thrived over the years and that you won’t be able to find bigger leopards in any other country. A fully grown males may weigh a mean of 60 kg, while a female will average around 35 kgs. In the wild, they have lifespans of about twelve to fifteen years. The leopard, because it is at the top of the food chain, is often recognized as a top predator that features a significant impact on the whole ecosystem. In Sri Lanka they have little or none to fear, other than the two-legged man, and can be seen proudly strolling around the Yala, one of the country’s most visited national parks.

The ‘Leopard Information Center’ in the Yala National Park was founded in 2019 to guard and preserve these wild cats, making it the world’s first information center of its kind. We had the opportunity of speaking with Mevan Piyasena, one of its co-founders, a naturalist and a wildlife photographer to get a glimpse into the project. He has been a wildlife enthusiast since he was a child. It was going on numerous trips with his father that instilled in him a love for nature and a passion for photography. He informed us that the concept of establishing an information center to extend awareness and exchange knowledge about Yala’s leopards arose from a discussion in 2019 between a group of wildlife enthusiasts, including Milinda Wattegedara, Dushyantha Silva, and Raveendra Siriwardena, who co-founded the center with Piyasena, along with the former park warden, Pradeep Siyasinghe and deputy, Ranjith Sisirakumara.

The main goal of the project is to offer more information about these animals to visitors who come to visit Yala from all over the world.

“If you’re a Sri Lankan, you at least know the language, and you’ll speak to someone and ask something about a leopard or where they can be seen…but if you come as a foreigner, we’ve noticed how foreigners become clueless about what’s happening in Yala or why they were brought there and what a leopard is. There’s not enough information and the local guides, they hardly speak good English, they will manage up to a certain level, but they can’t explain if you ask something,” Piyasena explained.

The ‘Leopard Information Center’ was founded to address such issues.

The Yala Leopard Center, which was established at the Dr. Ravi Samarasinghe Memorial Hall, is located at the Palatupana entrance. The Information Center also contains a touch screen that provides detailed information on the recognized leopards of Yala National Park, including images, family trees, and often observed regions. It also offers a constant display of leopard behavior video records. The park is split into five sectors, with Block-I being the most popular for animal watching at 14,101 hectares. In Block-I, they have recorded more than 130 Leopards from 2013 to 2021.

While leopards can be found all across Sri Lanka, including Kandy, and in several other national parks, the Yala National Park is the most popular in the country, with the largest density of leopards, attracting visitors from all over the world.

Piyasena claims that “Leopards are pretty much basically very adaptable cats. I think they are the most adaptable wild cat in the world. I would say that they easily adapt to any kind of habitat, whereas the tigers and lions cannot do that”.

Because of their innate nocturnal and secretive nature, these animals can be elusive. Stealth is their primary weapon, and what distinguishes them from other predators. They do not need to run like cheetahs and do not require a big hunting territory, and the fact that they do not rely on a specific prey group explains why they can adapt to any habitat.

You may wonder how one can differentiate between leopards. The most well-known method compares their face spot patterns, which include the area directly above their eyes and around their whisker lines. According to Piyasena, every leopard has a distinct spot pattern, which may be found not only on the face but also on other regions of their body, just like humans are recognized by their fingerprints, these creatures can be recognized by their spots. The center has developed a new way of identification known as ‘the multi point leopard identification method’. It is a non-invasive, rapid, and accurate technique of visually recognizing a leopard. Once you’ve uploaded a photo, it’ll be compared to the database of photos available and matched. Using this technology, the researchers have identified 135 leopards to date, and the cub litters of twenty recognized females throughout the identification period were photographed. They’ve also noticed that the patterns of different litters of leopards have significant similarities.

According to wildlife officials, habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as poaching and human-caused leopard killings, are all threats to the Sri Lankan leopard’s survival. They have highlighted and demonstrated the need for safeguarding wildlife in the information center, not just in Block-I, but also in the buffer zone. Mevan told us that these unlawful activities such as snaring, and poaching happen mainly in the buffer zone.

“If a leopard walks into that zone, it is highly dangerous for them. So, we have to protect the buffer zone as well. We aim to help people over there and see what kind of issues they’re having and what can be done to protect the buffer zone area”. 

Leopards are claimed to be abundant in Sri Lanka. They are endemic to the country, therefore, they cannot be found anywhere else on the planet. Every year, a number of leopards are killed, both purposefully and unintentionally. The IUCN Red List has classed the Sri Lankan leopard as endangered since 2008.  Leopard population has decreased up to between 700 and 950 individuals, which is why ‘The Hill Country Leopard Conservation Initiative’ was started with the guidance of Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, the renowned environmental scientist and former Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, in order to safeguard the species. It is also our responsibility to protect these natural habitats by leaving only our footprints.

Yala National Park is a well-known region for leopard, elephant, buffaloes, bears and crocodile sightings. A wildlife enthusiast will immediately point out that these five animals are Sri Lanka’s “Big Five”. Sri Lanka also has a diverse variety of fauna. Therefore, a jeep safari over the grassy plains and alongside the lagoons will guarantee that you see plenty of animals exposing you to a rich biodiversity. Here is a tip: in case you’re travelling for photography, ensure to take a zoom lens with you. While there are many leopards in Yala, spottings are rare as they are mysterious. Once you factor in the scale of the park, you are left with a 50/50 chance of spotting them. However, in the past year Yala’s adult leopard population and the new cubs have been constantly making appearances giving a few lucky photographers an opportunity to capture them in all their splendour.

The best time to visit Yala National Park is from February to June. It’s easier to spot animals coming out to drink. The peak season for leopards is February and March. There are lots of options for lodging close to or inside the park. Within the Yala National Park, the alternatives vary from a jungle chalet to glamping. Most of the hotels at Yala provide both private and group tours. While the price is a bit higher than other national parks in Sri Lanka, it’s definitely worth it in case you’re fortunate enough to spot a leopard.

Written by Isora Liyanaarachchi

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