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The national park is most famous as the best place in Sri Lanka to see Sri Lankan Elephants. In fact, it is the only national park in the country where an elephant sighting is guaranteed on every safari trip. Udawalawe National Park is said to have an elephant population numbering about 250. This population of elephants can be sustained in the national park owing to its lush greenery and large bodies of water that are vital for the survival of such a large population of elephants. The elephant population is not the only attraction in the national park. It is also known to be home to a wide range of flora and fauna, some of which exist only in Sri Lanka. Primates found in the national park include toque macaques and tufted grey langurs. Rodents include Indian hare and about five species of wild rat and mouse, including the rare and endemic Ceylon spiny mouse. The endemic golden palm civet and the Asian palm civet also call the national park home.

Among the larger mammals, ungulates such as Sri Lankan sambhur deer, Sri Lankan axis deer, Indian muntjac, and Sri Lankan spotted chevrotain; grey jackals; wild boar; water buffalo; and Sri Lankan sloth bears call the national park their home. Rounding up the list of mammals are three species of wild cats – fishing cat, rusty spotted cat (the world’s smallest species of wild cat) and the apex predator in Sri Lanka’s national parks (and the subject of this article), the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya).

While the Udawalawe National Park is known to have a small population of leopards within its boundaries (the exact number is unknown as an accurate survey has not been done), sightings are few and far between. One of the main reasons sightings are so seldom is the terrain and foliage in Udawalawe. The thick bushy areas, rocky areas, and caves make good hiding places for leopards, and viewing them is near impossible. Leopards are also great at stealth, and use it to both ambush its prey and as a defence mechanism. Their spots might be obvious out in the open, but in the shadows, it provides them great camouflage. Leopards everywhere are great adaptors; they will live in all sorts of terrain, eat all sorts of meat (some have even been documented to eat carrion during times of scarcity), and are experts at hunting animals both big and small. These adaptations allow leopards to manipulate their behaviour according to the environment in which they live. Udawalawe National Park’s leopards vary slightly in behaviour to leopards in other national parks in Sri Lanka, such as Yala and Wilpattu, owing to their ability to adapt.

Although leopard sightings are rare, they are not unheard of, as our naturalists recently experienced during recent a morning safari. This is the story of one such sighting that was exhilarating owing to its rarity and the vicinity in which it happened.

Before we start the story in earnest, we have to set the scene with a little bit of history about the area now known as Udawalawe National Park, before it was classified as a national park. Although heavily forested, the area had been known to have been inhabited, and used for “Chena cultivation”, a traditional method of farming where an area of farming is cleared, often using fire, for farming. This method of farming no longer happens within the park’s boundaries, but there is still some evidence that the area was inhabited. One of the more interesting examples is the existence of three coconut trees found in an area that once was a village (Coconut trees are not native to the forest, and had to have been grown by people). Further evidence of civilisation existing in the park are the names of places such as Galkoriya (which literally means the redundant “Stone Quarry”).

Galkoriya was once the site of a quarry that supplied granite for the construction industry. The area still contains a large granite boulder that is visible during a jeep safari from a distance of about 20 metres (65 feet) from the road.

Now that the history lesson is over, let’s move on to the story. Our morning safari started at 5:30am, just before sunrise. The sun was peeking above the horizon by the time we came to the Galkoriya area, around 6:10am. We had heard the alarm calls of several axis deer, but we paid it little attention, as they are known to be excitable. As we reached the boulder, we could hear the alarm calls intensifying. We decided to investigate what the commotion was all about, so we took out our binoculars, and searched around. Within a couple of minutes we could see what the deer were alarmed about. An adult female Sri Lankan leopard was standing on the boulder in question, surveying the area. It might have been hunting or just looking around to find a safe place. The leopardess did not stick around too long, as the Safari Jeep is something it is unaccustomed to. In the Yala National Park, leopards are used to the safari jeeps and pay little attention to them. In Udawalawe, owing to the conditions available there, leopards perceive these metal beasts a threat, and hide away.

We observed that the leopardess descended the boulder down to an area which is visible from a road that lay ahead of us. We quickly made our way there to see if we can observe this leopard further. A few minutes of careful perusal gave us an experience that we will never forget. We thought we were lucky to see one adult female leopard, when in actual fact, we saw that it had two cubs – estimated age 6 to 7 months – that it joined below the boulder. It was not mere self-preservation that pushed the leopardess to descend the rock away from the prying eyes of Homo sapiens; maternal instinct also played a big part in the decision (Leopard cubs stay with their mother until they are around 22 months old). We had the opportunity to see three of Udawalawe National Park’s unknown leopard population. Leopards, as mentioned earlier, are great at hiding, so our time with them was limited. We managed to take some photographs before they strode off into the thick wilderness.

Great experiences such as these are few and far between, but there are many lessons to be learnt from it. The first would be that nature will surprise us, and should never be taken for granted. The second is that a mother’s love is universal, whether it comes from a human mother or an animal mother. Another very important lesson is that everyone – naturalists, guests, and drivers – cares about conservation in Sri Lanka, and makes it a habit to leave the forest as it has been for endless millennia.

Naturalist: Puwathara Jayawardena
Written by: Nirmal Kirtisinghe

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