Discovering Sri Lanka’s Wild Side on a Photography Workshop
Photographer Lucia Griggi Explores the Natural and Photographic Treasures of Sri Lanka
Text and images by Lucia Griggi
After sundown in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park the accommodations of our photography workshop are… thin. Don’t get me wrong: in these luxury tents the beds are big and comfortable and perfect, and the floors and supports are native hardwood. But the walls are thinner than a Slough flat – canvas is all that separates night-vulnerable humans from whatever creatures are raising that menagerie of sounds, out there in the dark. Beyond the canvas.
These are not the quaint, benign clicks and croaks of the English countryside. The night sounds of Sri Lanka are exotic and alien: squawks, groans, shrieks, roars. After a long, hot day of exploring Yala West, the cool of night and the delicious beds are easy on the body, but the soundtrack keeps the imagination heated. A heat-wearied body topped by a thrill-scared mind causes a kind of delicious paralysis – it is luxurious to lie motionless and vulnerable, sorting through all the noises. The sound of sawing logs isn’t another tourist: That is the night call of the Sri Lankan leopard.
Sri Lanka: Surprisingly Perfect for a Wildlife Photography Workshop
Sri Lanka is similar in size to West Virginia, but even wilder. The island is no closer than 17 miles from the Indian continent, but isolated by an ocean and many millennia of separation. Not a desert island, Sri Lanka is so rich in flora and fauna it is ranked by Conservation International as one of 25 biodiversity hotspots on the planet. With 725 people per square mile, the human density doesn’t compare to the biodiversity of the islands: 5,916 flowering plants, 140 mammals, 458 birds, 267 reptiles, 178 amphibians and 191 freshwater fish – a majority of them endemic to the island.
Sri Lanka cares for its wildlife with great respect in 24 wildlife reserves on the island. At 378 square miles, Yala National Park is one-tenth the size of Yellowstone but about the same size as the Key West National Wildlife Refuge, or the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Yala protects herds of elephant, deer, peacocks and the Sri Lankan leopard. Naturally wary, the pressures of human population and deforestation have condensed the leopard population into this small, thick area of tropical rainforest in the southeast corner of the island, between the jungle and the deep blue sea. Our photography workshop offers unique encounters with these illusive and stunning creatures.
Listening to a Leopard’s Night Time Adventures
The regal bed within the wood and canvas tent is near a waterhole, where all the animals of the night come to drink in a wary dance of mistrust. Lying in bed, the story plays out in night sounds: The chirping of a Sri Lankan jungle fowl alerts smaller mammals around the water hole that a leopard is approaching. Many animal noises rise up in alarm, and then subside to a quiet that lets me hear animals slurping water from the pond. And then a sudden explosion of noise, something big moving through the trees, screeching monkeys, animals flying and running past the tent, just outside the canvas. The noise subsides and my tired mind overcomes my worry-thrilled mind and I sleep, peacefully, the cares of civilization replaced by jungle dreams.
That night I dreamed I fell. There were snakes. It was dark. I awake to the smell of 5:00 AM Ceylon tea, offered by Priyantha, one of the staff at the accommodation– a colorful man with bright eyes. He loves the jungle too and his hospitality is as civilized as the jungle is wild.
Close Encounters with the Leopards of Yala National Park
The jungle noises have changed to the polite chirping of birds. It is daytime and we are now the kings and queens of the swingers. The jungle that was a wall of danger at night, is now an exotic garden. Janaka is our tracker and he lives to please us – to catch a glimpse of a Sri Lankan leopard, in the wild. There was a kill last night – that was what we all were hearing – and Janaka leaves a dust cloud behind our Safari Jeep 4 x 4 as he rushes to where he thinks the kill went down. Janaka is a kind, happy go lucky guy, but behind his smile is a passion for tracking the wild cats, and an ambition to find felines for customers whose ambition and dream is to see a Sri Lankan leopard in the wild.
As Janaka shifts gears and accelerates, so does my excitement. Excited to be having an African adventure, far from that continent, which is more than 2000 miles away over the western horizon. Like most people, I did not associate “leopard” with “Sri Lanka” and while Panthera pardus kotiyais is considered an endangered species due to human poaching and encroachment, the population density of these beautiful animals in Yala is as thick as 18 individuals for every 39 square miles.
I was under no illusion it would be easy to see a Sri Lankan leopard. They are elusive and I was happy to put in time for a small glimpse of this sleek creature, slick with its spotted velvet coat. Janaka drove us through pastureland and into the deeper bush. Janaka shared all he knew about the Sri Lankan leopard as he drove – eyes on the road, hands on the wheel, stories rising with the dust. Like me, leopards are solitary creatures, continually moving about their territory, seldom staying in an area for more than two or three days at a time.
We came to a sudden stop at a watering hole. Yala is spotted with them, some natural, some man-made. Watering holes are like live bait to a leopard hunter, but the day had been filled with stops and starts, reverses and reversals as Janaka did his best to put us in the path of a leopard – or vice versa. Milinda, a guide and spotter, explained, “We see them most days at this time of year, when the land becomes dry and they are forced to walk to the watering holes for water. We have sightings and I have seen many hunts.”
And then there, in the shade of a tree, was a cool cat, cooling off from the mid-day sun. This big cat was more languid than illusive – sensual and powerful, the cat was scratching itself against a tree in an almost sexual movement, finding relief in the rough bark. The human impulse was to give the cat a good hard scratch behind the ears and along its back and anywhere it wanted. It would have been a pleasure to please that big cat. But getting anywhere close was out of the question – although the cat knew we were there but wasn’t distracted from its lazy afternoon. I had to be content clicking the shutter on my camera instead of scratching the powerful itches of that beautiful animal.
Milinda said that cat would be there until late afternoon, and we would be back. The cat had the sense to stay out of the mid-day sun, while this Englishwoman continued mad-dogging around in the heat of the day, eager to see more leopards. Janaka returned us to camp, as the sun was descending toward Africa, and night was approaching from Indonesia. There was a fresh breeze ruffling the hot, still air, and it was all refreshing. Somewhere in Yala, that big cat was leaving the shade of the tree, and preparing for a night of hunting. Back at the camp, our Chef offered towels for us to wipe down the day’s dust, and a refreshing orange juice to quench our thirst. I took a shower which felt good and came out clean and happy to find dinner being served.
Sri Lankan Hospitality on a Photography Workshop
I didn’t expect much, in our comfortable but basic camp, deep in the jungle with no apparent cooking facilities. But the Sri Lankans never compromise their hospitality. Laksitha the chef would have been welcome at any barbeque from Sydney to Austin to Rio de Janeiro. I looked for my own refuge and found it in the tent on the hammock. Putting aside those innate fears of spiders and snakes, I let the hammock consume me and rock me gently. Through the jungle the stars are out and I watch them play through the branches. My eyes close but this opens my ears and let that sense describe the dramas of a jungle night.
The wildest jungle dreams can’t compete with the reality of waking up in the jungle, in comfort, at the start of another day of cat scratch fever. Sri Lanka in the autumn is cool in the morning. I wrap up warm to fend off the morning dew, but there are cooler layers underneath.
Sri Lanka’s Wildlife Photography Treasures
While I was dreaming, trackers had been out in the night, looking for a sign, looking for a path to follow in the daylight. Janaka and Milinda lead us to a water hole – the jungle version of the local café. The water is glassy and still and occasionally ruffled by the peeking and peering of crocodiles, below the surface. There is a colorful necklace of birds around the water hole, fringing the subtle dance of the crocodiles – nervous as ballerinas about to go on stage.
Nervous and serene is the scene around the waterhole. There seems to be a common agreement among all the animals – a truce in the ladder of predation – that all are welcome as long as you don’t try to eat another animal. It is fascinating to watch, but can they all just get along? The truce applies to the larger animals, but apparently not the fish in the pond. A bird dives low to snatch a fish and as it wings away, a crocodile snaps and splashes to get its share. This inspires schools of fish to leap in an escape frenzy, and that activates the birds and the crocodile and for a few minutes the water hole is as splashy as a summer camp swimming pool. A crocodile snaps up a few fish, some leap out of the water away from the croc into the mouth of a bird. The ring of peace is broken by the circle of life.
My layers come off as the sun rises and warms the faces of rock formations around the water hole, and the hills beyond that. The jungle heat inspires a change in the look and sound and movement around the water hole. Buffalo sway to the hole, with deer and monkeys playing and carrying their young. Fascinating. We could sit and watch the social network all day long, but word of another leopard sighting gets us up and moving. There is a mother and her cubs, sunning themselves and visible on the rocks. Milinda suggests this is close to the cave where the mother leopard gave birth. They produce two or three cubs in a litter, usually, and the cubs stay with mom for two years.
En route, we got lucky as we came across a young male leopard, moving toward the water hole. The roar and dust of the infernal combustion vehicle didn’t seem to bother the big cat, but we stopped, turned off the engine and admired his figure as he lay on the dusty ground. This young leopard was alert, but sleepy. He was resting but our nerves were on edge, anticipating action. Milinda stood up, moving a bit like a leopard himself: “Shhhh!” he purred. “Wait!” We looked in the direction of his gaze and saw some kind of deer, camouflaged against the sandy colors of the jungle floor. The deer was hidden from the leopard but the deer hadn’t spotted the danger lying in the road.
The deer leaped, reacting to the cub raising its head, not knowing there was prey so close by. The deer bolted into a giant head start on the leopard, which roused itself from languid to lightning fast in a shocking instant. The leopard was up, calculating its chances. There was no chance, so the cub loped off toward the water hole, followed by an elephant cub. They both had a drink at the watering hole and then the elephant cub disappeared in a cloud of dust, while the leopard gazed at the water a bit and hypnotized itself into a nap, under a tree, to sleep off the rest of the day. Leopards are, after all, cats: They spend a good part of the day sleeping.
Meanwhile, back at base camp at Wild Trails, shade and a three-course lunch took us out of the mid-day heat. Mimicking all the animals at the water hole, we took off our shoes and waded through a shallow stream to a table set and waiting for us in the middle of the stream, in the shade. Perfect. Brilliant. Regal.
Lucia Griggi is a multi-award winning photographer. Based in the UK, she travels extensively to find photographic treasures around the world. In November 2017 and March 2018, she’ll be hosting exciting leopard-filled photography workshops in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park.