Even by the fifth hour when the sun bent all its thought hither, my safari experience was completely uneventful. The slate-coloured water buffalos were a dime a dozen, and they were gifted with curved horns beautiful but menacing. But they are after all not the most photogenic species nature has to offer. For most part of the day, all they do is sit their stocky frames in water or graze or stand in formation staring at something yonder (guarding against predators), so interesting they are not. Every now and then, a wild boar or a rabbit would scurry in and out of view. Sambars and spotted deer there were also, venturing out for a sip, galloping away at the slightest whir of the engine; in the wild, life or death hinges on a moment of vigilance or mistake.
That was the fate of one deer, how it came to its end will forever remain a mystery. Submerged in one of the murky pools was its carcass, its head already removed. It was a complete clean cut, its executioner leaving no bloody trail. A few paces from it was a crocodile, presumably the owner of the carcass, lording over his spoils. Beside him was a fallen bole with an arm jutting skyward, the shape eerily similar to his when his mouth is agape. Perhaps it is his decoy that lures unsuspecting prey, such as the deer, into a false sense of security.
“The stench of the carcass may arouse the leopard, leading him here,” said Dulshan my tour guide, his optimistic piece of news kindling hope in me. And that was the animal I, like most people, came to Yala National Park to see up close: the panthera pardus kotiya, endemic to Sri Lanka. Leopards number thirty, sixty or a hundred in Yala National Park, depending on whose account you believe. They are solitary creatures, mating only for perfunctory reasons not pleasure, so without the sheer presence of a pride, finding them in the over nine hundred square metres of expanse is like finding a needle in a haystack. So we tarried, watching the surroundings for any trace of a leopard. I imagined what an epic showdown it would be, reptile versus cat, both matched in cunning, ferocity and strength. Such luck we had not, and so we finally moved on.
Just then, my driver’s phone rang, and uttering something he turned the vehicle around, changed gear, and broke away with breakneck speed. Many vehicles before us did the same, whipping up a cloud of sand that blotted from sight the end of the road. When we arrived at the destination, there already was a fleet of jeeps. All the commotion was for a trio of elephants, including an adorable baby one, enjoying respite from the heat with some splash of water. Amidst a sea of upraised hands and vehicles that blocked the view, it was hard to soak in the scene.