Tracking Down Leopards in Sri Lanka

Spoiler alert: They're hard to spot.

There’s nothing unusual about seeing a peacock while in Sri Lanka: They are everywhere on the island. But the one I spot under a bridge, soaked, motionless and with its partially plucked wings flat on the ground, is a gift. I am not a morbid naturalist, but when you’re tracking the elusive leopard, even in Yala, the national park with the highest density of this feline in the world, every lead counts.

After an hour in a jeep stalking around Block 1 of the 979-square-kilometre park in search of the spotted animal, I’m starting to share my companions’ impatience. I look frantically from left to right, stare at tree branches, scan the movements of each tuft of tall grass.

At one point, I turn my attention to our guide, who, although he is armed with binoculars, gazes calmly at the horizon. He is not looking for the leopard, but searching for the signs alerting us to its presence: a bit like gusts of wind signalling a rainstorm. When we pass by the peacock again, he has both lost more feathers and changed places – a sign that the beast has come back for his lunch, but was interrupted again.

July 1, 2019
Illustration of a Sri Lankan leopard's tail

When the driver turns the jeep off, at the edge of the dense jungle, I scan the surroundings, but above all I listen, tuning into the chain reaction caused by a leopard. “He’s here,” says the guide. If the surrounding environment could be described as calm in another context, any experienced naturalist would know this is not the case: In the trees, macaques shout to warn their colleagues and make the branches crack as they jump from one to the other. Their movements cause two hornbills to take off; the snap of their wings in the damp air alerts a group of grazing axis deer, who immediately turn their backs to us and run into the bushes, lightly leaping. All the animals, me included, have their senses on alert.

Was it the fur on the tip of the leopard’s tail that I saw protruding from the yellow grasses to the left of the jeep? I’ll never know.

Seeing a leopard is exciting, but to feel nature quiver and sense the fear of mammals smelling danger is to leave your tourist state and become one with the wildlife. It is to become aware that, if not for the metal cage around me, I could be just like the poor semi-plucked peacock: lunch for a hungry cat.

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