Venturing deep into the forests of Yala and Wilpattu pays off with sightings of sloth bears, elephants, spotted deer, and the kings of the Sri Lankan jungle—leopards
Photographs by Alvaro Leiva
My first safari adventure in Sri Lanka begins with a mishap—just not the sort of mishap I’d have expected in the wilds of the island’s southeast, where elephants, sloth bears, buffalo, and leopards roam. At some point during the short jeep ride from the entrance of Yala National Park to the camp I’m bound for, my suitcase, a large and well-traveled Tumi, rolls off the back of the vehicle. Neither myself nor my host, Noel Rodrigo, hears it go thump in the gathering twilight, so engrossed are we (me listening, him talking) in his tales of game drives and crocodile encounters.
A wildlife sanctuary since 1900, Yala is the second largest of Sri Lanka’s 20 or so national parks, comprising nearly a thousand square kilometers of monsoon forests, grassland, and coastal wetlands. It’s also the most visited, being just a couple hours’ drive east of Galle and its surrounding tourist beaches. Ease of access has come at a price: reading up on Yala before my trip, I came across reports of “jeep jams” and “marauding behavior by drivers and tourists” and altogether too many vehicles (as many as 600 a day) entering the park, a situation that has alarmed conservationists.
“Nothing is being done to protect the animals and too many young boys are driving tourists in the park without a license,” Noel confirms over drinks at the camp, having dispatched a team of guides to recover my lost luggage. “But there is no better place to see leopards in the wild. Besides, we know a few tricks for avoiding the masses.”
By “we” he means Leopard Safaris, the company he founded in 2006 and that now operates camps on the edge of Yala and three other national parks: Wilpattu, Uda Walawe, and the Knuckles Forest Reserve, in the mountains northeast of Kandy. I’m here because a friend in Colombo tells me that Noel, a former Sri Lankan Airlines cabin manager, not only offers a modestly luxurious setup, but that he is also my best bet for seeing an endangered Sri Lankan leopard (called kotiya in Sinhalese and chiruththai in Tamil), of which there are an estimated 55 living in Yala.
I get my first taste of what creature comforts await sitting around a campfire that first night, the flames casting flickering shadows across the surrounding scrub. Noel’s wife, a German named Cecile, has made some scrumptious chicken-liver pâté, which sets us up for a barbecue dinner of fresh Negombo prawns, pork chops, and garlicky baked potatoes. As we eat, Noel clicks through a laptop slideshow of the resident leopards, which again is so engrossing that I barely notice when the guides return triumphant with my Tumi. And then it’s time to zip myself into my South African canvas tent, which is surprisingly cool inside and outfitted with a comfy, linen-draped queen-size bed and a snuggly blanket. It’s only 9 p.m., but Noel wants us to get our rest. One of his tricks for avoiding the marauding masses is a very early start.