He was just a big pussycat, sort of.
He sauntered down the road, lolled about in the shade, licked his paws, rolled onto his back, yawned, stretched out on his side and dozed. And, thankfully, ignored us.
It was a remarkable sight, and very rare. And yet, he was just one of three leopards we saw that day in Wilpattu National Park, of a total leopard population of 38. Talk about luck!
These magnificent cats, a subspecies found only in Sri Lanka, are part of the stupendous diversity of this small island, which ranges from rain forests to dry lowland scrub to water-drenched highlands carpeted in tea plantations.
Wild elephants, sloth bears and the big cats get most of the attention of wildlife hunters. But a dazzling array of 433 bird species exists here, a few dozen of them found nowhere else on earth. We saw many of them in our 12 hours in the park. (See the Max Wadiya Facebook page for an album.)
Fully one-third of this country remains under natural forest cover, more than most countries outside sub-Sahara Africa, and about the same as the United States.
Much of that forest and its plethora of nonhuman inhabitants are protected in parks or wildlife sanctuaries. But the country also has large tracts that are simply undeveloped, particularly in the northern former conflict zone.
Wilpattu, the country’s oldest and largest park, was closed in 1988 after the civil war intensified because it straddled the unofficial border between the government-controlled territory and the area held by Tamil rebels.
It reopened only after the war ended in 2009. By that time, a considerable number of leopards and other wildlife had been poached, apparently for the illicit Chinese market for skins and bones, which some boneheads consider therapeutic.
Wilpattu is not easy for tourists. Its 132,000 hectares, or 132 sq. kms., are densely forested, which is satisfying for naturalists and conservationists but tough for casual sightseers. The $25 entrance fee leaves a lot of visitors unhappy if they haven’t seen a cat or a bear.
The flip side is that the park the is much less crowded than the more open Yala National Park on the southeast coast, which is one-eighth the size. We at Max Wadiya no longer recommend Yala, which on a bad day suffers traffic congestion and any leopard sighting attracts an unruly jostling of safari jeeps.
No one really knows how many leopards Sri Lanka has. A study in 2005 calculated there were 750-900, not counting the northern district that was then under rebel control.
The rebels, formally known as the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam, took the face of a leopard as their emblem. So much for tigers!
Today, if there’s poaching it goes unreported. Elephants, unlike their African cousins, are safe from ivory hunters because only the male Asian elephant has tusks, and they’re usually too small to be worth much. Elephants here face another tragic fate of being captured or bred for Buddhist temple ceremonies, physical labor or tourism. They are often mistreated.
No, the real threat to Sri Lanka’s wildlife is development.
The jungle in the former rebel zone is now firmly under the control of the Sri Lankan military and its economic enterprises. A surge of tourism is leading to a construction boom of hotels along the eastern coastline.
Deforestation will become a growing issue. Last year President Maitripala Sirisena intervened to halt a development project that threatened to eat into Wilpattu’s protected zone.
Sirisena was prompted to action by a concerted “Save Wilpattu” campaign of public demonstrations and petitions.
Let’s hope we won’t need a “Save Sri Lanka” campaign in the future.