Monday, February 17, 2014

Where Have all the Leopards Gone?

Greetings All,
After leaving Myanmar we flew to Colombo, Sri Lanka via Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  We had a few days before meeting up with our next trek group so we visited Yala National Park in southern Sri Lanka.  Yala is Sri Lanka's second largest national park and is said to have the largest leopard density in the world.  We set out to explore the park with our guide, Arran, hoping to find a lot of leopards to photograph.

There are plenty of other animals and birds in the park to enjoy.   Yala harbors 44 species of mammals and 215 species of birds including 6 endemics.  One of the first birds we encountered was this Malabar Pied Hornbill.

Malabar Pied Hornbill

We rudely interrupted two land monitor lizards in the process of mating.  They reared up on their hind legs and embraced lovingly or so I thought.

Land Monitor Lizards

There was a lot of hissing going on and when the male started getting rough, the female had enough and made a hasty retreat.  Yala is also home to herds of wild water buffalo.  Around the periphery of the park most of the water buffalo contain genes from domestic stock.

Wild Water Buffalo

The Little Green Bee-eaters were especially prolific.  They flitted back and forth across the road alighting on branches nearby which made for a great photo.

Little Green Bee-eater

There are four species of deer in the park.  By far the most common are the Spotted Deer.  This handsome buck posed nicely for us.

Male Spotted Deer

There are more than 90 species of waterfowl that inhabit Yala's wetlands.  We observed Cattle, Little, Intermediate and Great Egrets, Red and Yellow-wattled Lapwings, Gray heron, Black-headed Ibis, Indian Pond Heron, White-breasted Water Hen, Lesser Whistling ducks and this beautiful Painted Stork.

Painted Stork

The Asian Elephant herds of Yala number from 300 to 350 individuals.  Most of the males are tuskless owing to the British shooting out all the large males with tusks in colonial times.  We did spot Nalaka, one of the few males with tusks.

Nalaka, male Elephant w/Tusks

The breeding herds containing the females with calves were more difficult to spot.  They tended to stay hidden in the jungle.  One small herd of about 7 individuals came out of hiding for a mud bath.  The adults sprayed muddy water on their back to cool down.  A tiny calf tried to emulate mom without much success.  He had not yet mastered the numerous muscles in his tiny trunk.  When the herd left the waterhole we got a good photo.

Asian Elephants

Almost everywhere you look in Yala you see Peafowl.  One Peacock was doing his best to impress a Peahen.  His tail feathers were extended in a brilliantly colored fan which he shakes violently to attract her attention.  At first she seemed interested but soon turned away and strolled off.

Peacock Displaying

There are two species of monkey in Yala.  The Toque Macaque is endemic to Sri Lanka.  They hang around the rest stops looking for an opportunity to steal food.  We managed to hang onto our breakfasts.

Toque Macque

Not wanting to miss anything we spent two full days in the park.  It gets really hot around noon and the animals tend to be less active.  Most people take a break around midday and return to their lodgings to rest.  We found that you can still spot animals when they come to one of the park's many waterholes to drink.

Spotted Deer Drinking at a Waterhole

One of my favorite smaller animals was the Grizzled Giant Squirrel.  They are found only in Sri Lanka and India.  They are near-threatened due to hunting and habitat loss.

Grizzled Giant Squirrel

Another small mammal spotted at dawn and dusk is the common Black-naped Hare.

Black-naped Hare

We were nearing the end of our second full day in the park and had yet to see a leopard.  We were getting desperate.  Others staying at our camp were getting good sightings but we always seemed to arrive minutes too late.  We decided to bend the rules and stay in the park past sunset in the hopes of getting a sighting of one of the cats that had been eluding us the past couple of days.  One of the top guys in the wildlife department, Chandre, was with us so weren't too concerned about staying late.  He wanted to see a leopard as badly as we did.  Finally, success!  A beautiful female leopard slinked out of the jungle to get a drink at a nearly waterhole.  Despite being some distance away and the growing darkness Marc was able to get a descent shot.

Female Asian Leopard

Time to head out of the park before it got much darker!  Thank you Arran, Chandre and our driver Koshala for being so patient and willing to remain in the park for 13 hours two days in a row for us to get good sightings and photos of Yala's elusive inhabitants.

We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc     

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