an island population subspecies that is bigger than fellow members of the species on the mainland
Panthera pardus -
Leopard safaris in Sri Lanka
Though the Sri Lanka leopard is classified as endangered, leopards can be more easily observed in Sri Lanka than in any other Asian country. One reason is: leopards tend to be more hiding due to the existence of larger preditors. But there are neither tigers nor lions in Sri Lanka that could frighten leopards.
Visitors of Sri Lanka taking part in a safari in Yala or Wilpattu should be aware, that watching leopards differs from elephant safaris. Observers have to stay at a distance in order to gain some trust of the animal. The most important advice is: to be quiet.
Leopard safaris in Yala NP
Yala National Park, block 1 in particular, is most famous for its leopard population and frequented by large numbers of tourists seeking to spot the beautiful big cat. Leopards love to lie in branch forks and on boulders looking for prey or just relaxing. There are many more rocks and open plains in Yala than in Wilpattu. As a result, the range of visibility is higher. This is the reason why chances to spot leopards are better in Yala than in Wilpattu, although there might well be even more leopards in Wilpattu. Nonetheless, you should be aware: On a normal Yala half-day safari - about four hours in the morning or afternoon - chances to sight a leopard are below 50 percent. But a full day in Yala combined with another half-day safari will increase the chances to more than 90 percent.
On your request, we can provide safari specialists who know some undisturbed areas in Yala that are as much or even more densely populated by leopards than the area of block 1, which is the part of Yala most frequented by safari jeeps.
Leopard safaris in Wilpattu NP
Although chances are less high than in Yala, some safari expeditions have good luck to observe leopards from close distance on a safari in Sri Lanka’s largest National Park, Wilpattu. Actually, the leopard density in Wilpattu is higher than in Yala. But the big cats are less often spotted due to the dense thicket.
Leopard season in Sri Lanka
August is the driest period of the dry season in the northern and eastern parts of the island, where all wildlife parks with leopard populations are located. During the dry season, wild animals are facing increasing problems to find drinking water in the parks. In particular, spotted deers, favourite prey of leopards, gather at the few remaining ponds. This is why August is a month of high chances to see the largest cat species occuring in Sri Lanka close to those watering places, too, as these predators are at the top of the food chain. Leopards freely roam in the jungle and open areas of Wilpattu Park day and night. They prefer open grasslands and sandy areas for relaxing in the dawn and dusk. Since the density of leopards is increased in August, in Yala Park and Wilpattu Park alike, chances are high to observe more than one of these magnificiant animals, which are called the beauty of the Sri Lanka's jungles.
Leopards of Yala - documentary
In 2003 the Scottish wildlife film maker Gordon Buchanan made a film about Sri Lanka’s most famous national park. “Leopards of Yala” contributed to scientific research on the numbers and density of Yala’s leopard population and spreaded Yala’s fame among wildlife enthusiasts. One of the most spectacular sequences of this film shows a fight between crocodiles and leopards.
The US-network PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) published an interview and more information in its online “Nature” series. The following quotation is from the “introduction” page:
“Mysteries and surprises abound in the nocturnal world of Leopards of Yala.
For more than a century, Yala National Park in Sri Lanka has been one of Asia’s most celebrated wildlife preserves, a lush windswept tropical forest rich in rare aquatic birds and abundant with ferocious predators, such as crocodiles and sloth bears. But only in very recent years has Yala’s big cat distinction been brought to light: It contains one of the world’s largest concentrations of leopards. NATURE takes viewers deep into the jungle habitat of these elusive animals, in Leopards of Yala.
Over a period of six years, Jehan Kumara, a businessman from Sri Lanka’s capital city of Colombo, and Dr. Ravi Samarasinha, a physician from the local countryside, devoted their spare time to tracking leopards in Yala. In the course of their work, they are joined by Scottish cameraman Gordon Buchanan, attracted to Yala by the lure of finding the only big cat he had never captured on film.”
Leopard attacks in Sri Lanka
Good news is: No tourist has yet been killed by leopards in Sri Lanka, nor by elephants or snakes.
Bad news is: About 800 Sri Lankans die from snake bites and 60 or 70 are fatally wounded by elephant attacks each year. Sadly enough, these are most probably the highest per capita rates in the entire world. Only Myanmar (Burma) could be a more dangerous country in both respects, but statistics are not known.
But what about leopards? Sri Lanka is the country with the highest leopard density in the world. So it might come as a surprise to read: Within the last 50 years it were altogether two Sri Lankans who were killed by leopards. That’s two persons too much, both of them were mothers in their early thirties. But this number does really not indicate a high risk of this kind of human-animal conflict in Sri Lanka.
However, the two cases indicate the most dangerous regions in this respect. Not surprisingly, one of the two fatal attacks occured at Yala National Park. Walking around in the park without a ranger is strictly prohibited, but there is an exception that makes sense: The traditional annual Pada Yatra pilgrimage from Jaffna along the East Coast to Kataragama crosses Yala National Park. One female pilgrim was attacked and killed by a leopard when she performed her morning ablutions at a river bank. The media discussed whether suspected illegal feeding of leopards to attract them to a nearby tourist camping-ground may have contributed to the strange behaviour of this particular leopard. But is it really strange? See below. There are reports that more human beings were attacked, though not fatally injured, in this region, particularly when Pada Yatra pilgrims were crossing the wildlife area.
The other fatal incident in Sri Lanka took place in July 2014. This fatal attack occured not in a traditional safari and wildlife area. On the contrary, it was in the heart of Sri Lanka’s tea highlands, the Central Province being one of the most populated regions of of Sri Lanka, second only to the Western Province). Though human beings are rarely attacked, several dogs are reported to have been killed by leopards in the surrounding of Gampola, 20 km south of Kandy. The fatal attack on a woman in July 2014 took place near Nawalapitiya, the next larger town further south. Actually, the leopard attacked two people, a teenager was hurt but managed to escape.
So be aware: Sri Lankan leopards occur outside national parks and remote wildlife areas, too, they inhabit all parts of the island except from Western Province and Jaffna Peninsula. Though very rare and usually not sighted, leopards also occur in those three areas which are most popular among hikers and trekkers, namely Sinhara Rain Forest, Horton Plains and Knuckles Range. The risks for visitors are extremely low, much lower than being struck by a lightning. Nevertheless, leopards are there.
The best way to be safe is simply not to leave your group and not to stroll around during nighttime. Leopards are less active during daytime hours. On trekking tours, a precautionary measure that makes sense is not to carry flesh as part of the provisions.
Before 2011, there were almost no reports of leopard attacks on human beings in Sri Lanka. In the 1950s, the so-called “man-eater of Pottana” near Yala scared Pada Yatra pilgrims, but it is not clear whether that beast indeed attacked or killed anyone. In 1924 the “man-eater of Punani” was shot by Shelton Agar, after that leopard had killed 12 persons. The huge beast was stuffed and can still be seen in Colombo’s National Museum. Leonard Woolf, who lived in Sri Lanka before World War I, also reported of a man-eating leopard that was finally hunted down.
Many more leopard attacks on human beings are known from India and Africa. In the course of time the numbers of incidents, however, have been decreasing, due to declining leopard populations.
Many people believe that human beings are not a natural prey of leopards and that leopard attacks only occur due to abnormal circumstances caused by man. There is reason to doubt this:
“That people are targeted by leopards should come as no surprise, for they have been attacking our relatives for thousands of years. In certain parts of Africa leopards often take gorillas. In the Virunga mountains, on the borders of Rwanda and Zaire, the very rare mountain gorilla is subject to leopard attacks. American biologist Dale Zimmermann actually watched a black (melanistic) leopard track a group of gorillas at an altitudes of 12,000ft (3,600m) on Mount Muhavura. Not long before, a tracker had found two dead gorillas in the same area. They had been mauled by a leopard.”
Bright, Michael. Man-Eaters. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002.