Meet the leopards of Sri Lanka

By Chrissie Goldrick 13 December 2013
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AG editor-in-chief Chrissie Goldrick invites you to see the majestic wildlife of Sri Lanka.

AG editor-in-chief Chrissie Goldrick invites you to see the majestic wildlife of Sri Lanka.

THE SRI LANKAN PANTHERA is one of nine recognised subspecies of leopard. This apex predator of the island of Sri Lanka (Pardus kotiya) is generally bigger than its close relatives on other continents, where larger members of the cat family, like lions and tigers, still roam.

Leopards are the smallest of the ‘big cats’ with long, lithe bodies, stocky legs and big paws. As with other leopards, Sri Lanka’s leopards’ coats are tawny yellow, marked with the dark spots and rosettes that characterise the species. Each animal’s markings are individual and unique, like a fingerprint.

Find out more about the whales and leopards of Sri Lanka expedition

There’s been little scientific research carried out on the Sri Lankan leopard population thus far. Observations have revealed that they may be more social than other subspecies and they are known to have tackled bigger prey, including buffalo. These differences may be a reflection of the Sri Lankan leopard’s unique position at the top of the food chain in the island’s ecology.

Leopards are opportunistic hunters and prefer to stalk and ambush a wide variety of prey, but they’ll readily scavenge carrion too. In Yala National Park in Sri Lanka’s south, plentiful herds of spotted deer make up the majority of the leopards’ diet.

Smallest of the ‘big cats’

These elegant mammals are primarily arboreal and nocturnal and are generally solitary, with the exception of females with cubs. Both sexes are territorial but males’ territories tend to overlap those of several females. Leopard breeding in Sri Lanka is thought to take place during the dry season, May to July, and litter size is usually two cubs.

Leopards have always been highly-prized for their coats wherever in the world they have occurred, and there has been an increase in the number of skins seized by authorities in Sri Lanka in recent times. Destruction of habitat is a further threat coupled with past years of civil unrest in Sri Lanka that have also hampered conservation efforts.

With over 35 recorded individuals, Yala National Park has one of the world’s densest leopard populations and is famous as one of the best places to catch a glimpse of one of these fabulous felines. The best time to spot leopards is between February and June/July, when the water levels in the park are lowest.

Yala: thriving wilderness

Elephants are also popular residents here (the best time to see them is also between February and July), and with luck you might also see sloth bears, sambhur deer, spotted deer, wild boar, porcupines, anteaters, civet cats, lorises, giant squirrels and lots of monkeys such as the macaque, purple-faced leaf monkey and grey langur.

More than 150 species of birds have been recorded in Yala, including migratory white-winged black terns, curlews and pintails and locals like hornbills, jungle fowl, orioles and peacocks. The bird spotters’ Holy Grail here is the rare black-necked stork, of which there are only 10 known individuals in the entire country.

I’ll be heading to Sri Lanka in March, hoping to photograph leopards in Yala National Park. I’ll also be voyaging out to sea to spot humpback whales and my fingers will be tightly crossed in the hope of seeing blue whales, too.

I last saw a leopard lounging in a tree in Zimbabwe in 1982 and dearly hope to catch a glimpse of its Sri Lankan cousin in March. I will be packing a 400mm telephoto lens and a good pair of binoculars.

Exodus Travel will be making a donation to the Australian Geographic Society for every AG subscriber who books a place on the trip, so I hope that you can join me as we go in search of leopards and whales in Sri Lanka.

Find out more about the whales and leopards of Sri Lanka expedition