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Hundreds of wild elephants roam free in Udawalawe National park, tuskers, male loners, small groups of females with babies. There is no specific high season to spot wild elephants in Udawalawe, they can be seen in large numbers all year long. Actually, there is somewhat an elephant guarantee for Udawalawa safaris. Apart from its elephant population, Udawalawe is rich in wild buffalos and birdlife.
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Last October, the occurence of Black Panthers in Sri Lanka was for the first time caught on video footage. The Wildlife Department had installed motion sensor cameras in remote dense forests. Sri Lankan authorities did not inform the public instantly but confirmed the existence only after a thorough investigation and recording more videos. There is now evidence of an entire family of Black Panthers, a male and a female with two cubs. Some shots are published on youtube, for example at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6aEyuQP9ew0 (with comments). The videos were shot in the montane forests of the sanctuary known as Peak Wilderness, which is the densely forested area around Adam's Peak.
However, some of the information given in Sri Lankan media is misleading. Black Panthers are neither a species nor a subspecies. They belong to the same subspecies as all other Sri Lankan leopards, namely Panthera pardus kotiya. The phenomenon of having a pure black sprite (instead of the more common dull yellow fur with black marks like other leopards) is known from many species, including many other species of cats, well-known in the case of pet cats: they can be black instead of striped. Similarly, Black Horses are not separate subspecies. (They only occur in some subspecies more frequently than in others.) This kind of mutation to a black fur is commonly called melanism. So be aware: The black colour is not a permanent characteristic of any specific bloodline. Rather, parents as well as cubs of Black Panthers can be yellow leopards. Even cubs of two black parents can be yellow. Furthermore, cubs of one and the same litter can be of different colours. To put it in other words: The next generation of leopards can change the colour, Black Panthers can be offspring of yellow leopards and the other way around.
Though Black Panthers seem to be purely black, they are in fact patterned. The darker marks of yellow leopards do not completely disappear in the case of Black Panthers. Rather, they can still be seen when very bright sunshine is illuminating the fur from the side. The reason is: The still existing rosettes and spots are only obscured by a much darker undercoat.
Already William Watt Addison Phillips in his "Manual of the Mammals of Ceylon" (Colombo 1935) reported that a Black Panther was shot by a hunter near Hambantota. Occasionally, Sri Lankan villagers reported to have spotted Black Panthers. However, the first photographic evidence is only from as late as 2009, when in Mawuldeniya (close to Deniyaya) in the southern foothills of the Sinharaha rain forest a female Black Panther was found dead in an illegal trap, afterwards taxidermied to be exhibited at the Giritale Wildlife Museum.
So, indeed, something's new and it's somewhat spectacular: It's for the first time now that living Black Panthers are scientifically recorded in Sri Lanka!
Black Panthers have been known from almost all other leopard subspecies occuring in Asia and Africa. They are most common on the Malay Peninsula, where Black Panthers form the bulk of the leopard population to the south of the Isthmus of Kra (maybe even the entire population), whereas spotted yellow leopards of the same subspecies (Panthera pardus delacouri) are common in other parts of mainland Southeast Asia and southern China. The percentage of Black Panthers is also comparatively high in forested montane regions of Africa. The general pattern of distribution is: Black Panthers occur more frequently in dense (and therefore dark!) tropical forests. Even yellow leopards in dense forests are usually more brownish than those in open grasslands, the latter "golden" ones in turn being slightly less pale than those in desert areas.
Ruhuna National Park, also known as Yala National Park, in the south-eastern part of Sri Lanka is a must-see for every nature lover visiting the island. Ruhuna is the ancient name of the region, whereas Yala is the name of a former coastal village within the national park boundaries.
Sri Lanka’s most beloved national park is famous due to the enthusasiastic reports of many impressed visitors and excellent TV-documentaries about its leopard population. The vastest area is covered with dry scrub and woodlands as well as moist monsoon rain forest, whereas the most visited part, Block 1, has lots of rock bolders, open grassland and small freshwater lakes and marine wetlands. Ruhuna National Park harbours 44 mammal species, 46 reptile species and 215 bird species, including 6 that are endemic. Common birds are Brahmini Kites, Bee-eaters, Painted Storks, Asian Open bills, Black-headed Ibises and Sri Lankan Jungle fowl, the national bird. Chances to observe wild elephants and salt water crocodiles are high. The density of leopards is, besides Wilpattu, the highest in the world. Nevertheless, leopards should not be expected to be spotted on each and every safari.
Ruhuna National Park safaris
Most visitors book a tour of three hours in the morning or in the late afternoon. Full day safaris are easily managable, too. Overnight stays are possible in bungalows. After some public debate in 2013, only very few tour operators are permitted to organize camping tours for guests with special permission.
Ruhuna block 1 standard safaris
Most tourists visit block 1, which indeed is the most scenic and ecologically rich part of Ruhuna National Park, with two dozens of leopards roaming or often relaxing on trees or rock bolders. Don’t expect to have block 1 reserved for yourself when visiting it by jeep. This wilderness is not loneliness. The mammal species you will watch most frequently are human beings, because in Block 1 you will probably share the sandy paths with dozens of other jeep sometimes driving in columns and assembling wherever a leopard is spotted. But it’s really worth it, particularly for those who cannot spend more time or money for a wildlife experience. Very few guests of block 1 are disappointed due to the tourist hurly-burly. Most guests are amazed by the beauty of the landscape and the variety and density of wildlife. But do not expect large herds, Sri Lanka is not Africa.
Real safaris in Ruhuna
Real safaris in other blocks are usually not managable and the prices are high. Indeed, there are tranquil areas with even good or higher chances to observe leopards than in block 1. The classic is the offroad safari starts from block 1, crossing block 2, which is situated between the rivers Menik Ganga and Kumbukkan Oya, arrives in e neighbouring Kumana National Park in the east. But be aware, this rarely permitted real safari is not possible after heavy rainfall, because there are no bridges crossing the river.
Beyond doubt, real Ruhuna National Park safaris including Kumana are the most amazing adventure highlight Sri Lanka has to offer for wildlife enthusiasts. But they are expensive due to the charges of the Wildlife Department. For those travelling on a smaller budget we can arrange an alternative in another wildlife area, which is close to Ruhuna alias Yala, with overnight stays in Lunugamwehera National Park.
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Nuwan Chinthaka Gajanayaka,