Monday, 31 October 2011

Leopards and Scrabble Tour

22–29 October, 2011 saw me guiding my first "Leopards and Scrabble" tour. It was with Diane Lofthouse from Sydney, Australia. The trip centred around Yala National Park—the celebrated wildlife hotspot in South East Sri Lanka.

Diane had turned 70 just days before the trip. And seeing a Leopard in the wild I was told was on top of her "bucket list!"

She was able to achieve that on the first game drive itself—seeing not just one, but three Leopards. They were—surprise, surprise—the celebrity Rukwila cubs (two out of three) and their "supermom."

Born little over an year ago, the Rukwila cubs are too bold, too photogenic and too ignorant that they are Leopards. And as most Leopard cubs at Yala, they have still not come to realise that as Leopards they are supposed be shy and elusive.

The handsome one above was seen on our seventh and last game drive on 28 October. We drove along the Patanangala bungalow road from the seaside and found ourselves stopping behind a jeep that had arrived earlier. The one above was sitting in a roadside thicket first.

That was while its sibling was resting on the track farther away. It was out of photographic reach for us because the track ahead snaked just enough to obstruct a direct view. A few jeeps, which had come from the main road side, were behind that Leopard cub. Which to their dissatisfaction, faced away from them.

As more jeeps crowded the scene from the main road side, the lounging individual got up and ambled to towards the one sitting in the thicket near us. Soon, it veered off and retreated to the thicket.

In the meantime, the one near our jeep got up and walked in the opposite direction—that is, towards the jeep track in front of us.

It then sat there giving us jaw-dropping views!

It was almost as if it was rewarding our good behaviour—by that I mean us being not too under its nose. And from 6.21 to 6.41 a.m. we had it posing for us beautifully. It was such a sweet reward for our patience and field craft.

Soon, more jeeps arrived from our end, eventually forcing the poser in the direction of more intimate company.

After this superb sighting, Diane told me that she can finally die happy!
Dying happy, unfortunately, was not case for one of the Leopards at Yala in October this year. We learnt, to our sadness, that a female Leopard cub had been found dead by the main road. This had happened before we arrived at Yala. It was first rumoured to have been killed by a Wild Boar. We were told that the carcass had been taken away by the wildlife department to conduct an autopsy.

There is some confusion as to whether the deceased was one of the Rukwila cubs or a different cub that had been near their territory. This is because of a few alleged sightings of all three Rukwila cubs together since the incident.

But I have my doubts about those alleged sightings.

Diane and I visited the Yala park from 23–28 October doing seven game drives. When ever we encountered the Rukwila family, the maximum number of individuals seen by us did not exceed three. And when all three were seen together, they included a markedly bigger individual. Which appeared be the mother of the cubs.

In the meantime, I got to know after returning home through Namal that the autopsy carried out by the animal hospital in Udawalawe had concluded that the cause of death to be a result of it being hit by a vehicle. Apparently, it had suffered damages to its ribs and internal organs—with very little damage to its exterior! If that autopsy is accurate, this death marks the second such case this year. Very, very sad. 

I fear this kind of incidents may happen again.
This is because jeeps exiting the park at dusk/evening are requested to keep their front lights switched off to "minimize disturbance to animals." As some jeeps try to hurry their way out to keep to the time of exiting the park, this kind of tragic accidents would be hard to avoid. Allowing front lights to be kept on in the vehicles (in a dimmed-state) when visibility drops, and having strict guidelines to avoid speeding inside the park at all times may help to avoid accidents like this in my opinion. Bringing the time to exit the park forward would be the wrong way to do things. 

Coming back to our tour, we had about twenty sightings of Leopards involving seven individuals. Most of the sightings were of the celebrity cubs of Rukwila, seen in all sorts of postures!

And scurrying across the track, sandwiched between jeeps.

In addition to Leopards, we saw plenty of wildlife, which included Sloth Bear and plenty of Asian Elephants.

More tragic news, I got thrashed 3-1 at Scrabble!

Which, take my word, had not happened for a long time. I lost 280–292 in the first game and got totally steamrolled 280–362 in the second.

I came back to win the third 328–314 in a close battle, but she had the last laugh with a runaway 368–298 win in the final game.


Stuart Price said...

Wow, absolutely amazing. I had no idea leopards were so co-operative to see and photograph........

Amila Suwa said...

Thank, Stu. Leopards at Yala are usually very cooperative. Of course, you need a bit of patience and field craft.

Lady divine said...

WOW! the pics are bloody amazing!!! :)

Anonymous said...

First two pics are awesome! :-)

Kirigalpoththa said...

For those top two photos you can easliy win a wildlife photography award. Awesome!

Amila Suwa said...

Thanks a lot, LD! I am glad you liked them.

Thank you, Tharindu. Superb photography in your blog.

Thank you, K.
I am glad you think so!

Janith said...

Brilliant Amila! :D Wowowowpwowowowow!!!

Amila Suwa said...

Thanks, bro!
It was epic!

Phil Slade said...

Do you play scrabble with just bird or animal names? Superb Leopard shots, just saw them in Africa but I don't know if there are two subspecies Africa and the Indian continent?

Amila Suwa said...

We play words allowed in Collins Scrabble Tournament and Club Word List (2007) and new words accepted since then (like "ZA"--a slang word for Pizza!).

Afrrica, India, and Sri Lanka have three separate subspecies. The former is the nominate one. The Indian one goes as Panthera pardus fusca. Our one, which is endemic to Sri Lanka, is Panthera pardus kotiya.

Anonymous said...

Not that I expect to see anything less from you, but these are brilliant photos. Like K said, you should submit these photos to WWF other Wild life photo contests. I have seen lesser photos winning. Thanks a lot for continuous education.

Amila Suwa said...

Thank you as always, Magerata!
I have not submitted my pictures to any of those competitions--overwhelmed by the qualuty of pictures that I see in them. But, taking your and K's encouragements, I shall give a go one of these days!

I am sorry the comment got delayed to appear. I was at Sinhraja during the last three nights. My Internet connetion was poor there.

Anonymous said...

hi mate...could u please tell me what kind of a camera you are using with the information about the lenses which you used to get those snaps...i bought a cannon 60d with that suffice for these kinds of snaps...pls be kind to advice and shed some light on how to get such exquisite shots...thanks...

Amila Suwa said...

Hi Cham,

For the photographs in this post, I used a Canon EOS 1D Mark 4 body fitted with Canon 100-400mm lens.

I used 40D before, which was my entry dSLR body. I don't use it anymore, as my new body gives better results.

Your 60D should be very good. I do not know much about it.

I shall deal with the last bit of your comment later. (Got to sleep now, as I am currently on a tour--working.)

Amila Suwa said...

Very sorry for my long delay in getting back to your last query. I have no simple answer for that! It's a combination of right equipment and being at the right place at the right time. And a right amount of luck. Good camera body and lense that works in low-light situations will help to take better shots in places like Yala. As a guide, I get plenty of field time and that also helps, because you increase the probability of encounters like this with more visits. Good luck!

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