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On The Spot


Leopard safari in Yala

Dr. Peter Heyes watching elephants with his children
at Yala and (inset) A yawning mature male
 leopard atop Kotigala

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne joins British High Commissioner Dr. Peter Hayes and his family in Yala  

July 2009 was going to be a very busy month for the Jetwing Eco Holidays team. This month, we will be attending the British Bird Fair for the 9th consecutive year. We would need to re-visit some of the key wildlife tourism sites prior to the Bird Fair with the office based operations team to ground truth the current situation.

Both the sites themselves as well as the facilities in terms of access, safari jeeps and boats, quality of accommodation can change significantly within the course of a year. A tour operator needs also to be like a travel guide writer and make regular field visits to stay in touch.

This is especially true of wildlife tourism where site factors can be complex and vary from the state of a footpath to a dragonfly watching pond to keeping pace with the shifting territories of leopards in Yala. An experienced tourism operations executive team, Ganga Weerasinghe, had joined us. But as he was new to wildlife tourism he had to be brought up to speed rapidly.

Talangama Wetland, Sinharaja, Kithulgala, Horton Plains, Uda Walawe, Yala and Bundala were on the list of essential sites to be covered in a span of a few weeks in July and August.

Travel advisory relaxed

On July 3, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) relaxed the travel advisory which had previously advised against travel to Block 1 of Yala (Ruhunu National Park). This meant that once again travel insurance covered British travellers to Yala. Other European countries would hopefully follow suit and relax their travel advisories in a similar way.

Yala National Park could then once again become a site of core business to in-bound tour operators such as Jetwing Eco Holidays as well as almost every tour operator in Sri Lanka who included a game drive in Yala as part of a round trip itinerary. Our guides visit Yala almost every few weeks. However, it had been a few months since I had last been to Yala with my operations team.

This was with Shyamalee Tudawe the editor of Hi magazine, when we went on leopard safari in March 2009. The removal of the FCO advisory, a new member of staff and the forthcoming Bird Fair meant there was a new urgency to visit Yala and to be familiar first hand with the new arrangements. 

The British High Commissioner Dr. Peter Hayes and his wife Kirsty had planned a private family holiday with their two children with two nights at Thimbrimankada Bungalow inside Uda Walawe National Park and two nights at the Yala Village Hotel close to the Yala National Park. They had very kindly invited me to join them.

 A memorable day

This fitted in perfectly with my plans to take new boy Ganga on a rapid ground recce and we joined them for a memorable day at Uda Walawe. We must have encountered over 70-80 elephants, most of them in small family groups throughout the day. The most memorable was when a family group arrived at the lake in front of the bungalow preceded by a single, large bull.

The bull entered the water first, walked towards us, faced us squarely and returned to the family where I presume it was consorting with a receptive female. The family arrived and drank and covered themselves in cooling mud. Other family groups began to arrive in the noon day heat with one family’s departure at the lake overlapping with the arrival of another. Forty or more elephants cooled off and accepted our presence under the shade of a Bahunia tree. 

The South-west Monsoon winds gusted and buffeted the exposed bungalow and the Hayes decided to cut one night short at Uda Walawe and we set out for an extra night in Yala. The Elephant Reach Hotel and the Yala Village Hotel supported the visit by my team. At the Yala Village Hotel, Chitral Jayatilake the wildlife photographer staged an illustrated talk followed by an atmospheric dinner held outdoors. 

I engaged in five game drives, four of which were with Dr. Peter Hayes. This gave us a very good grasp of the ground situation. There were a few key changes which have now come about. Visitors are once again allowed to travel to all areas of Block 1. I also found the local jeep drivers and guides are totally relaxed in traversing all areas of Block 1.

Entry and exit times

Secondly there is a far more sensible arrangement in terms of the entry and exit times for visitors. Tickets are issued from 5.30 a.m which means that even outside visitors (as opposed to those staying in inside park bungalows) are also able have a chance of encountering adult leopards in the morning who may be scent marking their territories before closing off a night of activity.

This is especially important because of the work done to brand Yala for its leopards. This work was begun by Jetwing Hotels and Jetwing Eco Holidays and subsequently continued by John Keells Hotels. Yala has now become one of the premier destinations, if not the leading destination in the world for dedicated leopard safaris.

The safari vehicles are also allowed to leave the park at 6.30 p.m at dusk. This time may be revised to fit in with the length of day. But at the time of our visit, it meant that we could stay on late enough to watch a mature male atop Kotigala come down and start patrolling its territory in the evening.

A more rigid departure time of 6 p.m would have meant certain aspects of leopard behaviour would not be available for viewing by those not staying inside the park bungalows. The park bungalows were not available for bookings at the time of our visit and it may be several months before they are vacated by the army and refurbished for visitors.

Patrolling goes on

We did not see army foot patrols within the park as on my previous visit. The patrolling goes on, in the early and late hours, discreetly to avoid giving negative signals to visitors. Security at the entrance remains tight with the group leader needing to fill in a form with his identification and summary details on the demographics of his group. Blank forms can be taken away and filled before hand.

However, when the Yala rush happens as is inevitable, I can imagine delays unless multiple counters are set up for screening. The security was reassuringly thorough. They asked me to open my lens trunk for a 600 mm lens and a hard case for a video, just to check on what is being taken into the park. 

The park was very dry at the time of our visit as the previous monsoons had failed. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) has over the last few years adopted an active or interventionist approach to conservation and maintained water at key water holes by regularly topping up with water a series of concrete lined ‘bowls’ within the water holes.

Leopard sightings

Leopard sightings had been phenomenal since July and fortunately there was no change during our three days in the park. Much of the action centered around a mother and her male and female cubs, which I estimate to be just over a year. The two cubs are seen mainly at three water holes, Kohomombagaswala, Siyambalagaswala and Palugaswala No 1.

 A line drawn from Walmalkema to Palugaswala No 1 will form a line from North-west to South-east connecting four water holes which are within a 3 km line. On this line we had the two cubs, male and female and a mature male atop a rock at Walmal Kema. Others have had sighting of the mother and two cubs making it four individual leopards in a remarkably concentrated area.

A fleeting glimpse

On our first evening we were treated to a one hour viewing of the male cub which approached the water hole and rolled about in the sand. It was intrigued by the arrival of a Ruddy Mongoose, but clearly had not yet learnt to hunt. The mongoose took refuge under a fallen log whilst the cub attempted to sniff it out. A lapse of concentration by the leopard saw the mongoose bolting for cover.

Soon after, the male cub climbed atop a fallen log. A large male wild pig appeared and seemingly oblivious to the leopard 20 meters away wallowed in the mud and left. The cub was clearly intimidated by the wild boar. It then approached the water to drink and snarled repeatedly at the submerged, patrolling crocodiles. There were large crocodiles in the water which were large enough to drag in an elephant. 

The next morning we had a fleeting glimpse of a leopard crossing the road where the main road branches off to Uraniya. In the evening we headed to Kotigala as there had been reports of a leopard climbing the rock. We arrived to find a leopard being admired by several safari vehicles. Leopards have becomes used to the attention of safari vehicles and many tolerate them. It has become easier and easier to take good photographs of them.

Photographers are now even finding that leopards are consuming their kills besides the road without dragging them away. This only helps to reinforce Sri Lanka as the Leopard’s Island.

The mature male atop Kotigala must have stayed over half an hour to an adoring audience before it yawned, stretched and ambled off the summit to merge a hundred meters away and crossed the road. The British High Commissioner had three individual leopards on three out of four game drives. My score card read four individual leopards on four out of five game drives between July 24. Inspired by my text updates, Frederica Jansz visited Yala on July 25 and saw three leopards and a Sloth Bear in the Patanangala area on one morning game drive.

Game drives

It is not always this easy. I always advise people that there is a 90 per cent chance of seeing leopards if you undertake five game drives. This is a safe statistic although there are periods when one or more sets of cubs are performing and leopards seem so easy to see. 

The Hayes family and the Jetwing Eco Holidays team had wonderful experiences in Yala. One morning we staked out Rakinawala, one of the larger water holes. From 6.45 a.m to 8.30 a.m we watched as a procession of mammals and birds came into to the water to drink. A few hundred Spotted Deer must have drunk demonstrating the density of the prey, which enables such a high concentration of leopards to be found.

I often cite the statistic given to me by the late Ravi Samarasinha that in this area of the park there can be on average one leopard per square kilometre. This statistic certainly ties in with what keen leopard photographers have observed empirically. It is of course not true of the entire protected area complex which spans 1,200 square kilometers. 

  Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is CEO of Jetwing Eco Holidays. He is a British Banker and Chartered Accountant turned wildlife celebrity (,

Post war: Hayes sees much hope

Dr. Peter Hayes

By Ashok Ferrey

Black stone walls of random rubble and the sibilant hiss of stainless steel doors closing silently behind you. Terrazzo floors the colour and translucence of melted butter. And everywhere the sound of water, flowing round and round in its inexorable way, carrying with it just the faintest whiff of danger...

You could be forgiven for imagining I had just been airdropped into the impregnable country fortress of some reclusive arms dealer, a sort of Sri Lankan Dr. No. But no, I am here to meet that other Doctor, the genial Peter Hayes, British High Commissioner in Colombo.

Q: Peter, you have been here for one and a half years now and there has been something of a change of pace from before. Are you a quiet person?

A: No. My approach is this: I start off by trying to understand the country I am in, by listening more than talking. Not only to politicians and religious leaders, but to ordinary people as well. I feel that it’s a respectful approach to building a solid relationship. Contrary to all the stories you hear, 99 per cent of people have a warm regard for Britain. I like to think of myself as an honest friend, who doesn’t always agree with you but is always consistent, and doesn’t say one thing to one person and another to someone else.

Q: Last month you lifted the travel advisory, and now British tourists are no longer advised to keep off certain parts of the country.

A: Trinco, Arugam Bay and Yala are now very much back on. The rest of the East we would advise people to visit only if they have work there; and the North is still no-go. This opening up process is a gradual one, not something you would expect to happen overnight.

Q: Will there be a huge influx of tourists from the UK?

A: Apart from India, UK has the biggest number of visitors to Sri Lanka. This year I believe there were 96,000. There is a time delay — people in England have already booked their winter holidays — so I would expect the increase to take place next year.

Q: You yourself were in Yala last weekend?

A: Indeed. We had an amazing time! The trackers did a marvellous job and we saw four leopards — two very good sightings. One leopard was sitting on the far side of a water hole, on a log. He chased a mongoose and then a wild pig, and at one stage came down to the water and snarled at what must have been a crocodile in the water. We were able to watch for about half an hour!

Q: However are you still advising all British Nationals to beware of terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka?

A: Yes we are.  We do believe there is still a certain degree of threat and so — yes, we are still compelled to warn them.  Sri Lanka is still listed amongst countries where there is a possibility of a terrorist attack.

Q: Did you also go to Hambantota?

A: I had already visited it. There’s a huge amount of work going on there. We too are involved in infrastructure projects, building bridges. Not just flyovers but actual bridges, connecting rural communities with each other. I am struck by the amazing diversity of the South, and the tremendous scope for development. There is a moment of opportunity here that must not be missed. Learning from the mistakes we all made in the past, one can hopefully develop these areas in an environmentally sustainable way.

Q: In the one and a half years you have been here, have you seen a change in the attitudes of us Sri Lankans?

A: Certainly since the end of the war I’ve seen a huge upsurge of hope about the future. This hope has to be developed upon. We need to leave the conflict behind and work towards a new beginning. From the UK’s point of view, our job is to help make this happen.

Q: Tell me about this amazing building — it’s just been shortlisted for the Lubetkin Prize hasn’t it?

A: We were in there with the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube. It’s not often a government building can claim such an honour — the prize went to the Bird’s Nest, of course, but still!

This building is a very good example of a joint effort (the UK architect was Richard Murphy, in collaboration with Sri Lanka’s Milroy and Arosh Perera), and as you can see they have incorporated a lot of what may be termed Bawa features — courtyards and walkways  and reflecting pools.

Q: And of course you don’t have far to go to work now, since you live next door. You have two young kids (of five and three). This must be the first time there have been such young children at the residence. Has that presented a challenge?

A: There’ve never been children this age before! So we’ve had to raise the railings on the stairs and balcony and so on. But my children have settled in very well. For instance, we tend to have rice and curry when we eat at home, and my son Jasper asks for “hot curry” — he loves it!

Q: Your wife Kirsty has a previous connection to Sri Lanka, doesn’t she?

A: Kirsty’s grandfather was born here — they were lawyers with the family firm Liesching and Lee. The firm still exists, though it is not now theirs. Her other relations were the Layards (as in Layards Road and Layards Broadway). There’s also a Layard’s Parakeet, so they were naturalists too!

Q: And you’ve been doing work on your garden?

A: With the help of Ruk Rakaganno we’ve been planting a lot of indigenous trees in the garden. The President himself planted an Ironwood Tree (Na Gaha) when he visited. It’s amazing how the birdlife has increased as a result — we now even have a kingfisher.

Q: And finally, I understand there’s a kitten currently quartered in your bedroom!

A: We have lots of pets — two dogs (that we got from the Rescue when we were in Washington), rabbits, the odd turtle that appears in the pond, and of course the snakes that the dogs drag into the house half-dead! Last week we adopted a stray kitten from Embark. It hasn’t been introduced to the dogs yet. Till then it’s in the bedroom, I’m afraid!”



   More On The Spot Articles....

  Post war: Hayes sees much hope



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