Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Yala National Park

Leopards and Crocodiles

Leopard cubs interacting © Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

2 OCT 2016 
by 
Ripples danced away concentrically on the surface of the water. I hear the ripples ringing out like musical notes against the harsh backdrop of the dry zone in drought. The cooing of Spotted Doves and the punctuated song of Black Robins provide the characteristic acoustic signature upon which the intermittent rippling is superimposed. This is not a soundgram of nature in harmony, but one of the balance of predator and prey. The rippling is caused by fish and in particular frogs which are breaking the surface and scattering in alarm. This is a dance away from death from the depths. Lurking underneath is a creature from the past. Its design has not fundamentally changed in millions of years. It looks prehistoric and it is easy to forget that it looks the way it does because there is no reason to change from what has proven to be an optimal design. A Marsh Crocodile is hunting at Korawakka Wala (translated literally as the waterhen waterhole).
This is a waterhole which many visitors to Yala are unaware of because of its location at the opposite end of the park entrance at Palatupana which is used by the majority of visitors. On this visit I am staying as a guest of Mahoora who operate a tented safari camp near the lesser known and less used Katagamuwa entrance. My route into The Yala National Park requires us to drive on the embankment of Korawakka Wala. At the wheel is Amarasiri who reminded me that he was one of a handful of safari drivers I used in the early 2000s to establish Yala as a multi-night destination for international tourists and especially to come in search of leopards.
Amarasiri is used to my ways of spending time on anything from flowers to animals and he kept watch patiently for hunting crocodiles without any pressure to go after a leopard. In 2012 whilst writing a paper on the potential for reptile watching tourism in Sri Lanka, I came across a paper by Anslem de Silva and others in which they had noted counting 300 Marsh Crocodiles in Katagamuwa after dark using spotlights to pick out crocodiles from their retinal reflections. I have never seen many Marsh Crocodiles in my travels in Asia and I asked Anslem if this could be the greatest concentration of Marsh Crocodiles recorded. A flurry of emails with international experts initiated by Anslem failed to produce a reply with knowledge of a higher count anywhere else in the world. Katagamuwa Tank is outside the National Park entrance although within the bounds of the designated Katagamuwa Reserve. Most visitors do not stop by it and may well be missing a wildlife spectacle. However, the dried out Koma Wewa further in from where we were, had an impressive daytime concentration of crocodiles with over 30 crocodiles in view.
I heard a large splash and Amarasiri drew my attention to a crocodile that had emerged. A large Indian Green Frog was dangling out of the crocodile’s mouth. It had nearly got away, but the crocodile had just about grabbed it by one of its legs. Both predator and prey balefully stared at me as they assessed their options. The frog would want to make a jump for it when the crocodile opened its mouth to manoeuvre it into position. The crocodile was only too aware of this risk and carefully in a series of movements, consolidated a better grip on the frog. A shake of the crocodile’s head and the frog was gone disappearing in a gulp. Another splash and another crocodile broke surface, this time gripping a large fish.
The leopard is the most charismatic predator on the island and is the top terrestrial predator. But from a young age it respects and fears crocodiles. They know that even the smallest waterhole seemingly devoid of any life can conceal a crocodile that can grab them by the snout and drown them. I have seen time after time how warily adult leopards approach water to drink. The next morning, I was able to see how this wariness was ingrained in a pair of cubs.
The rising sun had not yet melted away the calls of Jerdon's and Indian Nightjars at 5 a.m. when we sipped tea and coffee at Mahoora's reception tent before a line of safari vehicles throbbed away into the park. At 6 a.m. the vehicles were allowed into the park and with my family we joined vehicles at Gerimas Pokuna, a waterhole, where a pair of young cubs had been seen over the last few days. Flakes of dust, brown and yellowing leaves coalesced into two moving shapes and one cub walked up to the other and performed a lazy stretch. To reduce its profile and to avoid detection from any lurking crocodiles, one cub belly crawled into the waterhole for a drink of water. A short while later at Warahana, a line of vehicles was trying to take a peek at what was thought to be a bear. In the shaded undergrowth an eye gleamed fiercely like a jewel and an older leopard; a sub-adult, stalked across the forest floor. A medley of indignant barks and chatters and panic in the canopy announced that its quarry had seen it. A troop of Hanuman Langurs scrambled higher up to where forest meets sky and the alpha males gnashed their teeth in warning to the predator.
On Meda Para, famous for leopards, a Sambar bolted across. Nirma suggested we pull over and wait for the author of the panic. Soon Maya spotted another subadult which proceeded to cross the road in a measured gait. A team from Mahoora pulled up and reported another two leopard sightings. A few days earlier Wicky Wickremesekera, a top naturalist guide, had told me of two clients whom he was taking around on a 45 day wildlife safari. Things have come a long way since my initial efforts to brand Sri Lanka for leopard safaris was greeted with incredulity. However, its success has a downside and there are many complaints now on the number of vehicles. There are practical solutions for this, which I have covered elsewhere. The Katagamuwa entrance is one option for those who want to avoid the mad rush from the Palatupana gate and perhaps in the future the whole 1,500 square kilometres of the Yala Protected Area Complex can be managed as the world's premier leopard reserve instead of focussing the visitor traffic into just the 140 square kilometres of Block 1 of the national park.