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.