Looking for leopards at Yala National Park in Sri Lanka, sounds like one of the easiest things to do, especially once you learn that the park is known to have the largest population of leopards in the world. I mean, how hard can it be right? Hereâ€™s what I learnt.
I woke up to deep grunts and scrunching leaves outside my tent. Perhaps I was dreaming? Thereâ€™s no way there are wild animals outsideâ€¦even though, I was in their territory, I thought to myself.
I was glamping at Wild Coast Tented Lodge, thatâ€™s located just outside this national park in an attempt to get up close and personal with Sri Lankaâ€™s beauty. Not exactly, budget friendly, as I promised myself I would be on the trip to the island, but as I needed to spot some wildlife before I went back home, I decided to treat myself with a stay here. The modern tents are shaped like boulders that blend well with the surroundings and from an aerial view, the entire property resembles leopard paw prints. Thatâ€™s when I knew I was in the right place, plus, theyâ€™re eco-friendly. Imagine my excitement! The safari guide informed me that the gate to the park would open at 6am, in which case, I would need to be up and ready by 5am. The jeep would depart 30 minutes after and be at the entrance gates by 6am.
Looking for Leopards in the Morning
So there I was, coffee half-drunk, still groggy, I dragged my feet to the lobby. All thoughts of sleep vanished the moment I hopped into the safari jeep and was informed there was an elephant drinking water from my pool at night!
At 6am, our jeep was one of the few lined up waiting for the majestic iron gates into the wild to open. As we entered, my safari guide spotted an elephant followed by her tiny, and adorable baby trotting right behind her. After I managed to recover from my amazement, I grabbed my camera and alas! The memory card was still deeply rooted to my laptop back in the tent! Oh the misery and clumsiness I felt at that moment. The elephant and her baby had escaped into the thick jungle by the time I recovered from my sadness. Determined to experience the wildlife with no distractions this time, I was eager for sighting of more wildlife, especially a leopard.
After a couple of hours, almost noon, much to my disappointment, I didnâ€™t spot any leopards. We did see more elephants though, a herd and it was the most pleasing thing, knowing that these animals were wild and free. The safari jeep took me back to Wild Coast Tented Lodge for lunch, as animals would hide away from the heat during midday and only come out again in the evening.
Looking for Leopards in the Evening
The next safari set back into the jungle by 3pm. After a good lunch and a quick nap, I set forth again in search of the elusive and mysterious leopard. This time, the park was a bit more crowded than it had been in the morning, but I did manage to see more elephants, plenty of proud peacocks, wild boar, deer and water buffalos. But still no leopard! It was time to head back out of the gate and I was starting to feel disheartened and exhausted.
Back to comforts
Too exhausted to have dinner with other humans, I decided to order in and enjoy the tastes of Sri Lanka while cocooned on bed. The safari guide informed me that the jeep will leave for the park at the same time the next morning and persuaded me to be there again. This night, I didnâ€™t hear any wild animals curiously poking around outside my tent, either they were being really quiet or just got bored from drinking out of my pool. I would have ventured and explored around the tent, but was advised that it was prohibited to do so without a camp guard.
The Morning After
Waking up at 5am while on holiday tends to take its toll on the â€œvacation moodâ€, where I found myself wondering if itâ€™s worth it. However, since it was my last day here, I decided to give it one last shot. Dressed and ready to go, I hopped into the jeep. The air was slightly cooler than the previous day, maybe it was a promising sign? Our jeep was second in line at the park entrance and at 6am I set forth again, in search of the majestic leopard. The wildlife expert in our jeep took a few different routes this morning, pointing out that this is where the leopards usually rest or cross from. We were approaching a large rock and there it was! Almost like a miracle, I spotted an adult leopard seated at the summit of the rock, without a care in the world. Our jeep stopped, engines off and breaths held. In complete awe and amazement, the leopard didnâ€™t even seem bothered by our existence. I waited and watched for a good 15 minutes, before the wild beast decided to move away from our prying eyes.
Success with Leopards
Feeling elated and still somewhat in shock, we headed back to the lodge. Spotting leopards in Yala National Park is not always guaranteed. Itâ€™s more of a â€˜right time at the right placeâ€™ kind of experience. I learnt that patience and being really quiet is one the most important things to spotting a leopard, and arriving early of course!
Safari â€“ Avoid taking safari jeeps along the roadside. Ask the hotel to book one or head directly to the Yala National Park and book one in there.
Accommodation â€“ There are plenty of options for accommodation around the park, from luxury hotels, glampsites to homestays and campsites. However, I stayed at Wild Coast Tented Lodge.
Attire â€“ Wear dull, dark colours that will act as a camouflage, eg. Greens, blacks, browns.
Behaviour â€“ Maintain minimal noise inside the park. Avoid disturbing the animals in any way. Donâ€™t feed or interact with any animals and most importantly stay inside the vehicle at ALL times.
Written by: Gillian Nair
A traveller by day and a wine connoisseur by night. Classifying myself into a specific travel category is the hardest thing Iâ€™ve tried to do. I wake up to adventures in the jungle, browse through museums and art markets after lunch and enjoy dinner while gazing at the stars. I strongly believe that being a responsible tourist is the only way to travel.