Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hunting Leopards

Patience is a virtue......... especially for a wildlife photographer! 
The reason I got in to photography was because of my interest in wildlife.... and the reason I got into wildlife was because of my wife. Even though I always had an interest in wildlife and nature, I never actively pursued it until I met my wife, who is a wildlife fanatic. We used to go on nature excursions in Sri Lanka - to rain forests and national nature parks - when I realised that recording these trips and the wildlife we saw, would be a good thing. Unfortunately my attempts at photography at that stage was, to put it mildly, crap. So I started researching, learning, reading and collecting equipment to become a better photographer. It was around this time that (fortunately or unfortunately) I came over to the UK which has limited my ability to do wildlife photography. But whenever, we visit Sri Lanka, we try to cram in as much of it as we can in the short time period we are there. Our holiday in August was no exception. 
I had always wanted to go to Yala National Park, especially to see/photograph leopards in the wild but never got the chance to do so. Since it was the dry season in August and because there was a particularly severe drought this year, it was deemed to be ideal leopard viewing time as they would be visiting water holes quite regularly. So, together with our good friends Jerome (wildlife expert, tracker extraordinaire and general funny man), Rajive (wildlife enthusiast, vehicle expert and philosopher) and Damith (....uhmmm.... just a funny guy), we made a trip out there. 
My primary reason for the trip was to photograph leopards - seeing anything else was considered a very low secondary objective. We got some reports of several sightings the weekend before we were to go there so we were very encouraged, motivated and even quite sure that we were going to have some good sightings. Inspired by the Planet Earth series and photographs by Rukshan Jayawardena, all I wanted to do was track or lie in wait at a water hole and then photograph a leopard at leisure. Very unfortunately, things don't always go according to plan.
Yala, especially during the drought season, is a burning hot, dry and dusty land which takes a lot of your energy. We were allocated a young guide (part of the regulations) who, even though new at the game, seemed knowledgeable and competent enough and assured us that he will do his best to show us leopards. He was particularly impressed with the DSLR and the (relatively massive) 150-500mm lens and wanted to ensure that we get some good close up photos of the elusive animal. Unfortunately, in his endeavour to please us, he became over enthusiastic in his efforts... 
My idea of leopard spotting was to spend hours at a water hole and lie in wait for the animal. The guide had different ideas. Yala is quite a large park and there are about 5-6 spots that were supposed to be popular with the leopards. The problem was that these spots are quite far apart and required a lot of very tedious driving on hard, rocky and unpaved roads. In his efforts to show us the leopard, our guide made us run around these spots quite a lot. We would go to one spot, wait for 10-15mts and when nothing turned up, he would make us go to the next spot. And the cycle continued, for the next 3 days, during  the first couple of hours in the morning and last few hours before sunset which are the times when leopards come out. 
Our first day was almost coming to a close with disappointment in the air because we had not spotted even one leopard when we suddenly came upon a procession of trucks parked in the middle of the road. There were some whispers that a leopard was crossing the road ahead. In my excitement, I actually got out of the vehicle - which is strictly forbidden and might even be fined - to see the animal but was only treated to a brief glimpse of it in the undergrowth. The shot below is just a random click I took while getting out of the vehicle - from the hip - didn't even put the eye to the viewfinder.

From Yala

The next day we did more of the "running around" and I was becoming increasingly irritated. I tried to suggest that we lie in wait at a water hole but was quickly shot down as the guide felt that we might be missing an opportunity elsewhere. Even though we came upon a sighting that day, the leopard was so well hidden in the forest growth that we hardly could spot him let alone photograph him. 
The 3rd and final day dawned and we piled in to the vehicle in high spirits hoping that today was going to be the lucky day. Being the final day, I wanted to adopt my "patiently wait in one spot" strategy but the guide was a bit apprehensive that we still had not got a good sighting and wanted to maximise the time running from one spot to another even more faster than we did the last 2 days. I did not over ride him on this because I was not sure whether my strategy would have worked, especially we had only 1 day, as numerous other guides/visitors were also not having any luck with sightings near the water holes. But that didn't stop my mood from going bad to worse and the guide was becoming very anxious about this. Even though I knew it was not his fault nor blamed him for our bad luck, he took the lack of sightings as a personal failure which only increased his determination. After a disappointing morning session and a tiring lunch, we set off on the evening rounds. Even though we saw several other animals and birds, there were no leopards - disappointment being expressed by a lot of the visitors/guides who were out that day. Several vehicles had been parked at some water holes for hours and they had not seen anything either nor had we, with all our running around. 
With just a couple more hours to the park closing time, things were becoming desperate and I was about to put my foot down and insist that we stay in one place, when our guide suggested one last attempt at a spot which was a bit difficult to get at so might not be crowded with vehicles. He sounded quite keen and his own disappointment at our failure so far made me relent and we followed his directions. I had already given up and didn't even have my camera on "stand by mode" to take a shot. We were making our way slowly across some rocks when our guide gave an exclamation and asked the vehicle be stopped immediately. 
I craned and twisted my neck and looked ahead to get my first proper glimpse of leopard, who was sitting quite strong and proud and looking at us quite curiously. But my "un-readiness" was costing me dearly cos it took me a few seconds to get the camera up to my eye and the lens through the window to compose the shot. Unfortunately, just as I had lined up the perfect shot, Rajive (who as driving at that time) thinking that I had no clear view of the animal because of the delay in me taking the shot, moved the vehicle slightly forward. The guide was horrified at this cos he immediately ordered, quite strongly, not to move the vehicle. But too late! The vehicle movement threw off my perfect shot and also alerted the leopard, who turned his back on us and started walking away and all I got was this shot. 
Exhilaration at the sighting and disappointment at the missed photo opportunity, filled me at the same time, in equally strong proportions. The guide was more optimistic - he had been so anxious that he would not be able to show us a leopard that the first thing he did was put his hands to the air and give praise to the Gods!!! After this, he ordered us to drive around the rocks very slowly, expecting the leopard to be on the rocks where (s)he disappeared to. (S)he wasn't there so we stopped the vehicle and waited a few minutes. The sharp eyed guide gave another shout - even though the leopard was not on the rock he had expected it to be on, it had gone over to another rock a bit further off and we were able to see it clearly. However, our positioning was not great as there were several trees right in front of the animal and there was no way I could avoid them in my shots.
The best shot that I could get, and the only one with the leopard's eyes in them was this one - unfortunately it has a twig going right in front of its face which takes away a lot from the picture. And the twig is positioned in such a way that it is going to be difficult to clone it out.
The leopard slunk away soon after and even though we did try a couple of other spots we did not get to see another one. 
After all  the excitement died down, we realised we were quite lucky to have had that sighting, cos even though not great, we were one of the few that had a sighting at all that day. The guide was relieved and also happy with the big tip he got (which he would have got even if we didn't see a leopard). I would have preferred to have had used patience and a wait strategy but there are no guarantees when hunting leopards - you win some and you lose some.
Even though I realise that having had that small sighting is much better than having had no sighting at all, it really pained me when the guide phoned us a couple of days later to tell us that he had had several sightings of leopards since then and that there was one which waited at a water hole for a full 2 hours, drinking and playing, whilst it got its photograph taken by a lot of people. Talk about being unlucky! Maybe the leopards were just hiding from me!!! 
PS. In recent times the knife has been twisted even harder when I see that Amila and Imran have had such great luck viewing and photographing these beautiful animals.


  1. Well written account of what it takes to photograph a leopard! The pictures that you have taken are still remarkable and something most of us will never accomplish in a lifetime. What a beautiful animal, worthy of such time and effort. I must admit, not sure my patience would have lasted much past 4 hours.

  2. Nice story, enjoyed your take on leopard photography.
    Even though sightings are plenty at yala the quality of the photographic opportunity is scarce, very seldom do we get a chance of the perfect moment, at the perfect time and the perfect lighting. Like you said i got to agree patience is key.

    Why dont you try wilpattu for a change. From what i have experienced the quality of the sightings are much better in willey

    All the best for your future leopard searches, dont worry the right moment will come to you.

    Cheers !


    1. Thanks Rajiv. Agree with you wholeheartedly - there are lots of sightings of leopards in Yala (as attested by the many who have gone there and even my friend who regularly visits Yala) but for me even these brief glimpses seemed scarce let alone a full blown out photo opportunity.

      Wilapttu is another sad story - I went there a couple of years before the above trip, again to see leopards. We spent two days driving around and didn't even have a sniff of one. Two days after we returned, we got a call to say that there were plenty of leopards roaming about Wilpattu. I think these animals just don't like me!


If you like this blog post or pictures, please leave a comment to let us know. Thank you.