Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Yala Safari – everything other than the leopard

The previous post was all about our primary objective in going to Yala -  to photograph leopards. In pursuing this objective, we saw a lot of other interesting sights and had a few "adventures" along the way. 

The first “adventure” was trying to do two things in one trip with two completely different people
1) to have a serious educational wildlife trip - with Jerome, our wildlife expert and guru
2) to have fun - with Damith, our dear friend and clown whom we always take on our trips
Having these two conflicting personalities in the same vehicle was not pleasant at the best of times even though they got on better than we expected. Right in the middle was the calm, reflective personality of Rajive, providing a balance between the two.

We made use of a Montero to make the trip as we did not want to hire open vehicles to go in to the park. The Montero was quite comfortable and there was an endless stream of banter and jokes from Jerome and Damith until we got to our destination. One eventful incident on the way was when we were overtaken by a TATA jeep which was going at breakneck speed around the curved roads (quite a considerable speed as we were going pretty fast as well). After overtaking us, the jeep stopped quite suddenly by the side of the road a hundred metres ahead of us.  Without warning, out popped a skinny guy with long hair from the driver’s side and without looking to check for any vehicles, crossed the main Kataragama road quite casually. I had to brake quite hard to avoid hitting him but what was more shocking was that he jumped from my side of the road to the path of an oncoming bus which barely missed him. It was amazing that he didn’t get knocked down by either the bus or our vehicle. He quickly disappeared inside a house and even though we felt like giving the guy a good talking to, we continued our journey without any further incident.

Yala is a hot, dry, dusty and a tiring place during the drought season. We arrived in the afternoon and settled ourselves in a little place that Rajive had booked for us. The meals were fantastic here and we thoroughly enjoyed the food. Living quarters were not great but for that price and time frame it was the best we could do. The best times to see animals and birds are at dawn (the few hours after sunrise) and dusk (the few hours before sunset). However, getting away at the “crack of dawn” was inevitably delayed as we had to get the “baby” of our group (Damith) out of bed, in to the shower and to the vehicle as he was incapable of doing it by himself.

The park, especially the main visitor center, is full of Gray Langurs. It is quite interesting to see how much they look like humans. This guy was trying to relax and tried out many positions similar to us.

One of the highlights of the trip was being able to see a bask (group) of crocodiles feasting on a buffalo carcass in the water. They were too far to capture while doing this but these were the participants of this spectacle
Pic by Rajive 

Bee-eaters and deer were quite common as well and we saw plenty of these

Elephants are of course a favourite of any safari trip in Yala and we had our fair share of adventures with them. We had a good sighting of a large bull elephant which is supposedly rare in Yala. We were making our way to another leopard stop, when we saw some vehicles parked on the road and a lot of rustling noise from our left. We stopped for a couple of minutes and out walked a massive elephant with very long tusks. He walked right in front of our vehicle as he crossed the road and made his way in to the thick jungle on the other side

We also witnessed how protective elephants are of their young. We came upon a water hole where a group of  elephants had come to drink. Among them was a very young one, maybe about 3 months or so who seemed to be wanting to get in to the water. The adults of the group were very protective especially when several other jeeps came to look at them. All the little one wanted to do was get in the water and play but the adults kept pushing him between their legs to keep him protected. It was quite a sight. Once they had finished drinking their fill, they left with plenty of protecting adults around the little guy, with one of the elephants turning to give a warning trumpet as if ordering us not to follow them.

We came across another family of elephants which were in the undergrowth. Our presence made the head female nervous and she made a warning charge towards us. We decided not to disturb them further and went on our way.

The best elephant “adventure” of the trip was when Jerome decided to educate our young guide on the “Elephant Graveyard” myth. The myth is that all elephants of a group go to one particular place near a water hole to die because of sentimental reasons. This is not the case – as explained by Jerome, when an elephant becomes old, he finds it harder and harder to find food which he can chew on. So he makes his way to river banks where the plants are more succulent and easier to eat. At this point, since the elephant does not travel much due to its ill health, he dies around the same area. As time goes on, other elephants do the same thing and try to find areas where there is food which is easier to eat. They are eventually led to the same place and they too pass away in that area. So it is not a matter of these elephants finding a place to die – it’s a case of them finding food and dying due to old age. Of course, Damith couldn’t keep his mouth shut while Jerome was narrating this in all seriousness and he made a joke that Jerome should tell the story properly. This angered Jerome and led to an argument. Damith as usual had to  listen to a lot of harsh words. 

We were also amazed by the vehicles that came to Yala - one of which was a huge, old TATA bus full of people. They complained about not seeing a single animal and this did not surprise us the animals would have run away from the park itself with all the noise the bus and the crowd in it were making. Jerome narrated the funny story of how one group which had come to Yala in a bus had stopped off in the middle of the park to plant wickets and play a game of cricket - this was right in the middle of area where wild elephants and leopards roam :D 

The jeep all dusty and dirty, working its way across the rocks

The "kolla" Jerome - looking quite "elegant" 

Rajive - the "normal" one of the group

I got some very funny shots of Damith bathing in his underwear - unfortunately he found out about them and was rude enough to delete them from the camera. As revenge, I am not including any of his shots here :D

This is a huge rock that we saw near the beach area 

A Ruddy Mongoose drinking at the waterhole 

Found a great spot for dragonflies near the lunch area - but unfortunately, even though I had the necessary patience to photograph them, I was constantly disturbed by the impatience of the others in the group who were keen to move on 

A Serpent Eagle - I tracked this guy to another tree which gave me a clear shot but just as soon as I had set the camera and was about to press the shutter button he flew off 

Crocodile lunch? Not really - the heron is actually a bit further away from the croc. It looks like they are very close here because of the forced perspective

And finally, a very rare sighting of the endemic Sri Lankan River Hippopotamus :D

All these shots and a few more can be found in this album
Another funny story towards the end of the trip was when I our wildlife expert and tracker was unable to "track" the route back to his own house and we had to find it for him 

Overall a fun trip even though it had its moments!


  1. Really enjoyed your trip report.

    Yala is not just about the leopard, there is so much more too see if we are willing to look.

    Sadly most tour companies promote yala only for leopards, which in turn have made the jeep drivers all leopard crazy, and end up speeding from one sighting to another in the park, and not really enjoying anything else.

    Hope this trend is changed in the future.


  2. Thanks for that comment Rajiv. Agree - there is a lot more in Yala than leopards but being the most elusive of them all, they have become the star attraction. I have a friend who goes to Yala regularly and he says that things have become worse and worse over the years with more vehicle drivers being aggressive in their leopard "hunts". I think it is all up to the authorities to control this with heavier fines, bans and better policing.


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