Sri Lanka’s Iconic Big Cat
It might be a lion on the country’s national flag; however, today, of all the world’s big cats (whose list includes lions, tigers, jaguars, and so on), only one is currently in residence on the island of Sri Lanka: the leopard.
Panthera Pardus Kotiya, a.k.a. the Sri Lankan Leopard, is Sri Lanka’s only big cat and is arguably the most famed of all Sri Lanka’s endemic wildlife species.
If you’re a wildlife enthusiast traveling to Sri Lanka, here’s all you need to know about these leopards and where you can spot them during your travels.
What Are Sri Lanka’s Leopards Like?
It’s undeniable that leopards are one of the most beautiful big cats out there, and Sri Lanka’s estimated or so leopards are no different.
Sri Lankan Leopards, like most, are solitary creatures, choosing to live and hunt on their own; the exception being mothers with their cubs until they are around two years old.
While it’s rare to see a group of them together, if you do, they’re known as a ‘leap’. That’s right; it’s a ‘leap of leopards’; I bet you didn’t know that one! Wondering why they’re called a leap? That’s a nod to their amazing jumping abilities; some leopards can spring as high up as 10 feet and as far forward as 20 feet.
In Sri Lanka, leopards are at the top of the food chain – they’re what’s known as the apex predator and keystone species. Therefore, it might be somewhat easier to spot them in Sri Lankan national parks as they may tend to be a little less weary than some of their counterparts across the globe.
Where Can you Spot Sri Lankan Leopards?
You can find leopards at many of the country’s national parks, including:
- Yala National Park
- Kumana National Park
- Wiplattu National Park
- Udawalawe National Park
- Horton Plains National Park
Why It’s Worth Park-Hopping to See Them
Sri Lanka may only have one species of a leopard; however, that’s not to say that they’re all the same.
Most visitors believe that if you’ve spotted a leopard at one of the island’s national parks, you’ve seen them all. This is not necessarily true.
If you have an eye for big cats, you might notice that there are consistent variations between leopards in the lowlands vs. the highlands.
Let’s take a look at the leopards you might come across in Yala National Park vs. those of Horton Plains National Park.
The Leopards of Yala National Park: Sri Lanka’s Famed Leopard Destination
Yala is located in the lowland area in the southeast region of Sri Lanka. Its landscape is relatively flat, and its climate is quite hot compared to Horton Plains National Park.
The animal that Yala is most well-known for is the Sri Lankan Leopard. In fact, this park boasts the highest leopard density of all the national parks in Sri Lanka.
The leopards here are thriving and numerous. Many visitors to the park can expect to experience a leopard sighting at some point during their safari.
In addition to being more in number than at other parks, the leopards of Yala tend to be less vehicle-shy; this contributes to the increased odds of sighting a leopard at the park.
The Leopards of Horton Plains National Park: A Well-Kept Secret
If you mentioned wanting to go leopard watching at Horton Plains National Park some years ago, it wouldn’t have been surprising had people thought you were crazy or at least completely misinformed.
That’s just how elusive the leopards of Horton Plains used to be. They still are, but thankfully it’s getting easier to spot them over time as they become more habituated or used to seeing humans.
Nevertheless, there are a lot fewer leopards here than at Yala, and they also tend to be quite a bit more people-shy. Wildlife enthusiasts have observed that Horton Plain’s leopards tend to come out more after dark or during low-light conditions. In contrast, Yala’s outgoing leopards are spotted on the prowl in broad daylight much more frequently.
As a result, even today, spotting a leopard at Horton Plains is a much rarer treat than spotting one at Yala (were you able to spot the one in the image above?).
While the leopards of the central highlands might be of the same species, you might notice that leopards at Horton Plains do tend to look distinctly different from their lowland counterparts. Why is this?
Horton Plains National Park lies in the island’s central highlands. Owing to the high elevation that the park is situated at, the climate is rather different here than at lowland parks such as Yala National Park. It can get quite cold, at least by tropical standards, with temperatures usually averaging between 10 and 16 degrees for most of the year; on some occasions, especially during months like December, January and February, the temperature can drop down to 0 degrees, and the plains become covered in frost! This difference in climate is one of the main factors to which wildlife experts attribute the variation in the physique.
Other factors include the relative abundance of food and water at Horton Plains for the leopards as well as less competition from scavenger species such as wild boar (leopards may be the apex predator on the island, but being solitary hunters, leopards tend to shy away from herds of aggressive wild boar, which are a more common occurrence at parks like Yala).
Can you Tell These Leopards Apart?
Can you guess which one is from Yala National Park and which is from Horton Plains National Park?
If you guessed that the second one is from Horton Plains, you would be correct.
Both of the leopards in the above images are of the same species and gender and of a similar age. However, there is a minute but distinct difference (more explained on this below).
These images are courtesy of one of Sri Lanka’s most experienced wildlife photographers and enthusiasts, Sankha Wanniatchi, who has been in love with leopards for as long as he can remember (if you want to see more beautiful shots of leopards, keep an eye out for his upcoming book, Ghost of the Clouded Plains).
For nearly a decade, he has made it his mission to capture the beauty of the elusive Horton’s Plain leopards. In a recent interview, he revealed some of his observations collected over the years:
- Horton Plain’s leopards seem to consistently have thicker, fluffier coats than their lowland counterparts, likely due to the colder climate
- They also tend to have more stocky bodies, which could be a result of the relatively fertile hunting grounds of Horton Plains
How Does One Keep Track of Leopards?
If you’re new to leopard tracking, it’s fascinating to understand just how wildlife experts at the parks keep track of individual leopards.
First of all, how does one even tell them apart anyway?
Unless a leopard has a permanent injury or scar or is very unusual in size compared to its peers, as casual observers, it’s fair to say we wouldn’t be able to tell apart one from the next. However, the parks maintain a leopard diary of sorts, which does distinguish between individual leopards.
For example, Yala has enterprising felines such as ‘Harak Hora’, a.k.a YM7 or Yala Male 7, whose hunting exploits have earned him the fitting moniker of ‘cattle thief’.
Each leopard gets a code which is made up of the park’s initials, the leopard’s gender and a number representing the order in which the leopard’s sighting was reported. For instance, a female Yala leopard might go by YF3 and a Horton Plains leopard might go by HPF5.
Furthermore, as seen in the example above, each leopard also gets a name that’s related to its behaviour or where it was first sighted.
But, how do they tell the leopards apart?
One of the main ways is to count their spots, or rather, rosettes.
While all leopards have them, they don’t all have the same number of rosettes or quite the same arrangement of rosettes across their body. Even the shapes of the rosettes tend to differ. Therefore, you can think of a leopard’s rosette markings as a unique fingerprint by which they can be differentiated. To identify a leopard, wildlife experts tend to start by observing markings on their forehead and cheeks, followed by their flanks.
Where to Stay While Exploring the Parks
Sri Lanka’s national parks are important tourist attractions. Therefore, whichever national park you choose to explore, there are likely to be specialised accommodation options at or near the park that will make your trip easy and memorable.
Take for instance Yala National Park. You will find everything from glamping options and budget hotels to luxury resorts that are located a short drive away from the park.
An example of the latter kind is Chena Huts by Uga Escapes. Located a few minutes away from the park’s entrance, a stay at a hotel like this has you covered on all fronts.
From world-class hospitality to arranging safaris at the national park, everything will be taken care of for you.
Not to mention that you get to stay in accommodation like this, which really lets you immerse yourself in nature while enjoying the best of creature comforts:
Safari Best Practices
Safaris are an exciting experience and a highlight of Sri Lanka travel.
As a wildlife enthusiast, you might be wondering how to ensure that your foray into the wild results in minimal interruption to the majestic creatures at the islands’ national parks.
Here are some best practices:
- Parks like Yala, as popular as they are, tend to get quite overcrowded during certain times of the year. This is not a great experience for park visitors and even less pleasant for the park’s furry, scaly and feathered inhabitants. As a responsible tourist, one thing you can do to help is to seek out a travel expert. They can help you identify off-peak seasons during which you can visit the park instead, which will help mitigate the issue of overcrowding.
If your trip to Sri Lanka happens to coincide unavoidably with the peak seasons of one park, consider visiting a different park. For example, Yala might offer the highest chance of a leopard sighting, but guided by a wildlife expert, you can stand an improved chance of spotting a leopard at one of the other national parks.
- Avoid littering at the parks. Don’t pack items that you intend to throw away and if you must use items that need to be discarded, carry bags or containers to store your rubbish until you can exit the park.
- While you’re on holiday, it can be tempting to play loud music, fool around with friends and family and talk, shout or laugh loudly, but try to hold back on that – respect the natural atmosphere and minimise disrupting the wildlife at the park. It’s a privilege to be allowed into their world.
- Leading on from the above, if you’re exploring a park such as Horton Plains, which allows visitors to trek through the park on foot, make sure not to stray from the designated paths and avoid actively interacting with the wildlife. You’re there to observe.
- Lastly, under no circumstances should you feed the wildlife. Not only does it pose a risk to your safety, but it can also harm the animal. Your treats could make the wildlife sick or worse yet, make them complacent when it comes to protecting themselves from poachers or other humans that may do them harm in the future.
That being said, visitors bring in much-needed revenue for the national parks, which helps them take care of the creatures that they protect. So do visit, but conscientiously!
Ready to embark on a journey of discovery of the Sri Lankan Leopards?
The key takeaway is that if you’re really into these gorgeous felines, it’s worth scheduling excursions to spot both the lowland and highland residents!