Alden Boon

Yala National Park, Sri Lanka: Just as Hope Dies, the Leopard Appears

25/07/2018

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Every day for two hours starting from noon, Yala National Park stands down, and all vehicular movements are killed. It is to give the wildlife some peace and quiet, so that they too can enjoy sunshine without any intrusion, explained Dulshan. A much-deserved break for the animals – at the first sunlight, the park already teems with rangers and tourists and jeep drivers, the noise pollution and agitation not possibly good for them. Not an inconvenience anyway, for noon was also lunchtime for us, so we retreated to the coastal area: on the periphery of Yala National Park is the Indian ocean, itself never sleeping.

Lunch was invigorating, though it did little to inspirit morale. For six hours we had been going in circles, going hither and thither on a whim, in search for the big cat. Zilch luck we had. Leopards tend to hide in their caves or on the trees in the day, hunting only at night under a canopy of dark. There was the easy way: to go to a zoo and see leopards in captivity, a shadow of their destined glory, but what thrill is there in that, not to mention the cruelty of enslaving animals for human’s entertainment.

Now, I had already reined in my expectations, for game drives are much like chasing the aurora borealis – what you want is not always what you get; much as we humans like to think we are the superior being, nature does not answer to us. But I was largely disappointed at the lack of majestic-wildlife sightings: six hours of work for just three elephants, a couple of chameleons, and the earlier-mentioned. I was beginning to dismiss Yala National Park as a tourist trap. I was informed the latter half of the afternoon would not necessarily bring more rewards, for the animals tend to retreat further into their habitats.

And so with a low morale, I soldiered on, keeping a sharp eye out for the cat of a mysterious aura. This way and that we went, ascending small hills of rock (as I held on to the handrails for my dear life, jerked around like marbles in a bag), cruising along stretches of land. Just then, as if life were throwing me a bone, we zipped past a grey behemoth, standing alone, quiet as a mouse, ingesting shrubbery. “Elephants eat up to three hundred kilograms of vegetation a day,” Dulshan volunteered the trivia. It would take only a few lumbering steps for him to reach us, if he decided to, but for now he had no cares in the world.

Not three minutes later, we spotted yet another elephant, this time out in a lake, killing two birds with a stone: eating and soaking in the water. And then again two more water buffaloes, now venturing to the edge where the vegetation ended, so that they were only a few paces from me, and their horns were terrifying to behold. I felt my heart skipped a beat. Yet these sightings greatly enheartened me, for it seemed that the animals were now on the roam.

Yala National Park Safari Sri Lanka Leopards
Yala National Park Safari Sri Lanka Leopards

Time was running out. Yala National Park closes at six in the evening every day, and we had only two hours left on the clock. There was one last bastion of hope: a waterhole, where a leopard was seen drinking from just the day before. “Are cats creatures of habits?” immediately I thought, my mind searching back for useless trivia that I might have read, hoping the answer was a yes. But seeing how I have a general disinterest in cats, my effort came up short.

When we came to said waterhole, there were already a few jeeps waiting in queue. It was a tough decision: a part of me wanted to abandon the stakeout and seek greener pastures, pun intended, fearing that I was missing out on an opportunity elsewhere; another voice quieted the angst, and said to be patient, and that good things come to those who wait. “So wait fifteen minutes, at least,” I thought to myself. Other visitors obviously had the same thought as I; as we sat idly by, two, three jeeps gave up, and so I was moved up and had an unobstructed view of the waterhole.

Fifteen minutes turned into an hour, and with each passing minute, the pull of the great unknown tightened its hold on me. The longer the wait, the greater the disappointment. Then, a peacock strutted into view, then another, and before long two others joined the pair. Claim of the waterhole was theirs alone, and they had unfettered access to the water. And again, my hope was ignited at the coming of these birds. But hope oft deceives, and so a long branch tipped with leaves resembled a head. I was convinced that each time the leaves rustled it heralded the arrival of the leopard, and was not in fact the making of wind.

Yala Safari Leopard Sri Lanka Safari

Suddenly, piercing the still air was a bleat, loud and reverberating as metal jangling in a well. A deer’s siren. A portent. Danger was come. A bleat, then another, and now its rhythm was more intense. “There!” Dulshan said as he pointed to a disembodied figure. My eyes scanned the shrubbery, which veiled the supposed animal, and I could see nothing but green. And then, I espied a black-spotted tail, erect and curled. The leopard carefully surveyed his surroundings, because while he was in the upper echelons of the food chain, he was not altogether invulnerable or impervious to hurt. He took his time to regard every single thing within his line of sight, hiding against the lee of a tree.

Only when he was satisfied that no imminent threat was lying in wait did he then stride towards the waterhole. From the forest emerged the leopard, hitherto elusive and stealthy, relying on its tawny-yellow coat of black spots and rosette markings to stay camouflaged and away from prying eyes, now finally declaring himself out in the open.

Instinctively without any cue, all fell to a palpable silence, men and beasts: whispers and the sound of clicking camera buttons and the bleats died. Even the wind did not stir. Everyone drew a deep intake of breath.

Poised was the leopard’s slinking gait. He stood rooted on the brink, knowing fully well that in the water lurks another predator that is his match. Then, stretching his body into a stoop, he sipped the water, nonchalant that an act so natural and simple to him was drawing the fascination of his slack-jawed voyeurs.

What a privilege.

Yala Safari Leopard Sri Lanka Safari
Yala Safari Leopard Sri Lanka Safari
Yala Safari Leopard Sri Lanka Safari
Yala Safari Leopard Sri Lanka Safari
Yala Safari Leopard Sri Lanka Safari
Yala Safari Leopard Sri Lanka Safari

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.

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