When the phone rang, our driver grabbed his cell phone quickly. ‘Hello?’. A short conversation followed after which he turned around to us. ‘Leopard!’ was all he said, this one word being enough for us to break into cheers before we sped down the dusty red dirt road.
It was our second try to spot the elusive leopard in Yala National Park, the only place in Sri Lanka where leopards where still living in the wild. We had heard rave reviews from other travelers who saw several leopards on their safaris, seen photos from friends, and we were sure we’d see at least one leopard as well.
However, on our first safari a couple of days earlier, we hadn’t seen a single leopard. My fellow safarians Hai, Jessica and Becki and I were all quiet and disappointed as our jeep bounced over the bumpy road on the way back to our hotel, even though nobody said it out loud.
It was also somewhat absurd to feel disappointed after a safari during which we’d seen elephants, crocodiles, water buffalos, monkeys, wild hogs, countless birds and other animals, but we had all been hoping that we’d see a leopard and that just didn’t happen. After all, the prospect of seeing a leopard in the wild was the main reason we had included Yala in our Sri Lanka itinerary.
So we decided to give it another try a couple of days later, this time opting for the morning safari instead of the afternoon safari, hoping that the leopards would be more active in the morning. Leopards are said to be the most difficult of all the ‘big cats’ to spot, since they’re nocturnal animals and rarely venture away from their sleeping quarters during the day. And not only that: there are very few places in the world where you still can see leopards in the wild, and outside of Africa, Sri Lanka is the best one.
After our 4am wake up call, the four of us were sleepy, but the simple exclamation ‘leopard’ was all we needed to be wide awake all of a sudden. We got to the place our driver had been told about on the phone, where there was another jeep parked already, its passengers looking out to a wide open green field, pointing at something that was moving in the far distance.
Yes, it was a leopard! Not the close-up encounter we had been hoping for, but a leopard nonetheless. We watched the cat as it majestically crossed the field.
We then continued our hunt for more leopards, but when our driver mentioned that there were only about 25 of them in the vast ~297,000 acre (1,200 sq km) park, I realized how lucky we had been to even see this one. The thick bushes on both sides of the road, the endless plains, the rocks that made for excellent hiding places – it was a miracle we spotted that one, I thought.
After a while, we passed a tree that our driver mentioned was a popular leopard hangout spot. However, no leopard was to be seen anywhere in the tree. Our driver decided to wait in one spot for a while instead of keep moving, and so we parked the jeep and just waited. There were some other jeeps, most of which had their engines running, and I thought to myself: If I was a leopard, I wouldn’t show myself. After a while though, we were the only car. And we waited. The silence was interrupted by the ringing of the phone, and after a rushed exchange our driver turned to us with a big smile on his face: ‘There is a leopard in the tree now!’
When we got back to the tree, a number of jeeps was already lined up on the narrow part of the road. One by one, the jeeps drove slowly past the tree, stopping for a moment so that everyone was able to take pictures of the majestic cat.
The leopard was barely visible though, laying on top of a branch, dozing in the morning sun. I could only make him out through my 300mm zoom lens, and the growing number of jeeps made the entire scene not really enjoyable, to be honest.
When we drove away from the scene, our driver decided to stop the car again in a quieter place and wait for a while to see if any leopard would show up. We were looking out at the open plains when the phone rang again.
‘A leopard has been spotted 6 or 7 kilometers from here. Do you want to go?’ He didn’t need to ask us twice – of course we wanted to go. And so we took off once again, dust raising behind us, and a few minutes later we arrived at the scene.
Only a few other jeeps were there, and unlike near the other tree, it wasn’t a narrow stretch of road, but a wider space so that all the jeeps could just park and we could all simply watch what happened.
First, I saw the monkeys. A whole bunch of them, chattering loudly and jumping from their tree onto the one next to it, running up the branches and jumping back onto their original tree again. And that’s when the leopard came into sight. A beautiful, playful leopard who totally fell for the monkey’s tease and chased them up the tree.
When he realized that they had jumped on the other tree, he made his way back down. This caused the monkeys to start over again: They jumped back onto his tree, this time a little braver and moving further down on the branch.
It didn’t take long for the leopard to head back up, but the monkeys were faster. Their chattering grew louder and louder, it seemed like they had a blast taunting the leopard.
Our driver told us that the cat wasn’t older than a year, which explained his playfulness. The monkeys kept teasing him, and we were able to watch the spectacle from our jeep without any rush or having to fight over a good view with others, even though more and more jeeps were pulling up.
We ended up spending a good twenty minutes enjoying the leopard entertaining us, until he finally realized that it was pointless and he wouldn’t get monkey meat for breakfast – at least not today.
Three’s a charm proved right in this case – the third leopard spotting was the perfect ending to a brilliant safari morning.
Thanks to our driver for being such a good sport and doing his best to show us a leopard, thanks to the Cinnamon Nature Trails team for organizing the jeep and driver for us at a great rate and thanks to Jess, Hai and Becki for being such awesome safari buddies!