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Sunday, October 9, 2011
While trees and lianas bloom and adorn the jungle, wild animals make it vibrant. An elephant leisurely feeds on a branch broken from a tree, a wild buffalo raises its head and looks around proudly, a deer plays on a mat of green grass and a yawning indolent leopard lies on a rock, all bringing verve to the jungle.
Yala East was a fine habitat for leopards. There was no scarcity of animals of prey due to the dense population of deer. The thickets here and there and the rock caves provided ample shelter to the leopards. On the way back from Kumana in the evenings, park visitors came across leopard very often.
The social behaviour pattern of sharing the habitat with others of their kind in harmony cannot be seen among leopards, as in elephants. A male leopard always keeps the boundary of its territory well demarcated and does not allow other males to trespass. Warning signs such as the chemical scent of scats and urine and claw marks on trees are used for such demarcation.
According to studies conducted in Kenya, the extent of a male leopard home range is around 33 square kilometres and that of a female is around 14 square kilometres. Size of the territory of a leopard is generally determined by the availability and distribution of the resources needed to meet the basic requirements such as; prey animals, water, shelter and of course mates. Studies such as that done in Kenya that required leopards to be captured and released with radio collars have not been carried out in Sri Lanka so far. But, judging by the status of the jungles here the size of the territory of leopards should be smaller. Another reason for the smaller range is the absence of competing predators such as lions, cheetahs or hyenas as in the African jungles. The territory of a male always overlaps that of several females but not that of other males.
As one proceeds towards Kumana from Okanda, one passes a rocky hillock near Andarakala. One flat rock slate near the top of the hillock surrounded by several other rocks was once exclusively claimed by a sluggish leopard as its resting place. The leopard used to spend the evenings lying on the rock and watching around with its sleepy eyes as the heat of the mid-day sun faded away. If a vehicle with a group of visitors comes along the road and stops there the leopard gets up and enters the jungle hesitantly and returns no sooner the vehicle has left. One day, an officer passing Andarakala observed the leopard lying dead with severe wounds. It was quite clear that the wounds were as a result of a violent fight with another leopard. The leopard had to concede to an intruder that was stronger. A male leopard may fight another intruding male to death. In such a case the territory of the demised leopard will be divided and taken over by the neighbouring males. Nature’s ‘survival of the fittest’ law applies strictly here.
Any animal from a small rat up to a young sambhur deer may fall prey to a leopard. Only an adult sambhur deer with fully grown antlers, a well built wild buffalo or a wild pig with sharp tushes can pose a threat to a leopard. One documentary had a scene which shows a leopard being charged and chased by a group of adult wild pigs while trying to hunt an adolescent in the group. Filmed in Wilpattu National Park it shows the nerve and the tenacity of the wild pigs. The scene ends with the helpless leopard walking away with its tail bent and broken after being attacked.
Apprehending a prey animal is not an easy task for a leopard. They succeed only once in about ten attempts. A leopard will have to employ every tactic and skill to reach a prey to within arms length. Here, the flexibility and the coiled strength of the body and, extreme patience help the leopard to overcome the ‘escape tactics’ of its prey. The colour pattern of the fur on leopard skin is similar to that of shadows falling on the ground created by sunrays filtering through the tree canopy. This combined with its fine patience helps the leopard to stealthily reach its prey.
Even the boundless patience at most times is unable to stop the attention of the thousand eyes peering through the jungle. Sight of a leopard which walks sneakily through the bush is first caught by the monkeys, languirs or the macaques, which perpetually survey the landscape from their vantage points on trees. Though the leopard tries patiently to avoid the attention of its prey the monkeys catch its slightest movement. Once a leopard is detected the monkeys start the coughing call that serves as an alarm call to other animals. When this happens the leopard has to give up the idea of preying within the radius the call reaches. Coughing call of the monkey and the alarming hoot of the spotted deer would fade away only long after the leopard has disappeared back into the bush.
Sometimes the commotion of a troop of monkeys can indeed be rewarding to the leopard. Though the monkeys are so agile in leaping about the tree canopy, they might miss their step when jumping from one branch to another while having their eyes fixed on the leopard. No sooner a monkey falls on the ground thus, the leopard would spring into action and close it jaws around it, letting it hang from the mouth. Monkeys are considered to be a preferred and common prey of the leopard as evidenced by scats containing monkey hair.
Generally a leopard goes after prey in the late evenings and in the early mornings, avoiding the hot mid-day. But, reaching a herd of spotted deer flocked in a grassland is not that easy. The grazing deer raise their head ever so often and make sure that there is no danger lurking around. Soon as the figure of a leopard appears over a bush of tall grass, a knoll or a tree trunk laying on the ground, the whole herd of deer bursts into the alarm call that resembles a high pitched short hoot. It is raised for the protection of all animals in the jungle. They fix their eye on the leopard and keep on calling until the leopard disappears, stamping the hooves of the forefeet on the ground. The jungle aroused by a slight slip-up of a leopard takes a long time to return back to tranquillity.
A leopard stalking a prey shows great patience. The crawling leopard keeps the eye fixed on the prey and makes use of every possible cover to conceal itself. Reaching the prey to within a distance of a few leaps the leopard comes out of the cover and makes a dash to the victim.
Whether or not the victim animal saves its life from the sharp claws of the pounding leopard totally depends on how fast its evasive action is. To bring down a prey animal which literally takes off changing the direction instantly, the leopard has to be strong as well as agile. Nature has no mercy on those who are not so built.
If the leopard manages to bring down the prey having hooked it with claws of the forefeet, next step would be to choke the animal’s throat with its powerful jaws. Suffocation or breaking the spine with a sudden jerk brings instantaneous death to the victim.
A large prey brought down by a leopard will suffice for a few days for it to feed on. A female with cubs will share the prey with them. Sometimes the prey may have to be taken to a tree and hung on a fork of a branch to keep it away from the other carnivores. The amazing strength of a leopard enables it to ascend a tree carrying even a well grown deer in its mouth. Among the members of the cat family, only the leopard has the habit of taking prey onto trees.
Leopards which have physical disabilities have to choose easy prey. Such leopards tend to come near human settlements and prey on domestic animals such as dogs and cattle. In India it is not uncommon for such leopards as well as tigers to prey on humans. Jim Corbett was one of the famous hunters who pursued and killed such man-eaters. He has aptly related his experiences in his writings. The man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag killed and ate 125 human within a period of eight years from 1918 to 1926. After being destroyed it was confirmed that the leopard had suffered from various physical disabilities. Whereas in Sri Lanka, except for the man-eating leopard of Punani in the Eastern Province, there is hardly any written record of man-eaters. As stated in an article in a late 1930’s edition of ‘Loris’ magazine, R. Shelton Agar, the experienced hunter of elephants and leopards who destroyed it says that it had killed 12 men over a period while lurking near a public road. Agar ambushed and destroyed the leopard over its last kill, the railway tappal runner from Punani to Kalkuda.
One early morning in June 1982, a woman in Ullewela area of Panama village entered her kitchen to find a leopard sitting there. As the woman became restless and utterly nervous the leopard left the house and got to the sand road in front through the fence of the compound. Being a fairly dense village, Panama consisted of a large number of small compounds and a network of sandy roads stretching through. By then, the sun had arisen and not knowing where to escape to in the unfamiliar environment, the leopard walked along the roads. Agitated neighbours and screaming women compounded the situation. A wild animal that enters a human habitation for some reason becomes quite confused and disturbed due to the unknown environment and the excited villagers. Such an animal has no alternative but to be aggressive out of its sense of insecurity. The leopard loitered along the narrow roads in the village and attacked three men who crossed its path, severely harming them and bringing turmoil to the whole village.
The leopard moved about the village which had then assumed the looks of a battlefield and finally entered the house belonging Thambayya Kiribanda. Though the leopard entered the house to escape from the commotion in the village, within moments the house was surrounded by tens of villagers, encircling the house and imprisoning the animal.
The Grama Niladhari of Panama, Rasnak Gedara Ranbanda was informed of the incident. He arrived with two of the best poachers in the village, Premaratna and Wickramaratna. The house was a wattle and daub dwelling with a cajdan roof, located inside a small fenced compound. The onlookers increased rapidly and waited anxiously outside the fence to see the drama they expected to unfold.
A long time passed without an incident. Perumal, the bicycle repairer of the village whose patience was running out slowly entered the compound climbing over the gate. The two marksmen too were on alert taking aim at the front door which was open. The house had an open veranda in front at the left of which was the small window of a room inside. As it was not safe to reach the open front door Perumal slowly got to the window and then tried to peep into the house through its wooden bars. But the darkness inside did not allow him to see anything. Then, with heightened curiosity, courageous Perumal pressed his face even further against the bars of the window with the palms of his hands covering his face in defence.
What was then witnessed the next moment was the leopard breaking the bars and leaping out the window, bringing Perumal down in the process. With screaming Perumal in the grips of the leopard that was trying to bite his head the crowds began to howl. Next, finding no space among the crowd to escape, it turned back and ran towards the front door to get back into the house. But before it reached the door, Premaratna and Wickramaratna took precise aim and felled it instantly. This ended what was a long leopard dance.
Killing of the leopard was reported to the park office at Okanda by the Grama Niladhari and we arrived at the scene in the afternoon, for the investigation. Fatal gunshot injuries were observed on the back, base of the tail and across the belly. The leopard was a male and the length from the nose to the tip of the tail tip was 6 feet 10 inches. Shoulder height at the fore limbs was 2 feet 7 inches. The leopard had a scar of an old wound on the palm of the right fore limb, while no other infirmity was observed on any other organ or teeth.
By then, the four wounded people including Perumal were being treated at the Pottuvil hospital for the bruises and wounds on head, shoulders and the sides. As it was clear that the leopard was killed in public defence it was decided not to take any further legal action against those who were involved in its slaying. The carcass was brought to Okanda and the leopard was skinned for the skin to be sent to the head office in Colombo and the rest was buried.
Having a wound on a fore limb the leopard must have been roaming around the village at night looking for easy prey like dogs. On this particular day the sun dawned while the leopard still was moving about in the village and it must have entered the kitchen looking for a shelter being unable to find the way back. Wild animals that enter human habitations often undergo a regrettable fate as that befell this leopard.
One of the special characters seen among mammals is the intensive parental care given to the offspring. Leopard cubs too develop all the skills needed for adulthood under the protection and guidance of the mother. This training starts with playing with the tail of the mother and gradually extends up to killing of prey. An animal that did not receive such coaching would not be able to fend for itself if released into the jungle.
When the animals breed beyond the capacity of the Colombo National Zoological Gardens, at times, excess animals are released into the National Parks with the permission from the Department of Wildlife Conservation. These animals born and grown in the cages at the zoo do not have experience of the conditions that prevail in the natural forest. Once, it was decided to release a couple of leopards so born into Yala National Park. As the two animals had to be trained to prey on live animals they were provided with live prey while still in their cages.
Block II of Yala National Park was selected as the location for the release. It extends between Menik and Kumbukkan Oya rivers and is free of visitors. One evening the two leopards were brought to the designated release area in a large cage and the doors were opened to release them. It was thought that they will come out looking for freedom as soon as the doors opened but what happened was the opposite. The leopards edged more and more to the inner corner of the cage and tried to conceal themselves while staring at the open expanse. They were forced out of the cage with great difficulty only after darkness fell. The officers who witnessed the release reported that the leopards lied down on the ground once they came out of the cage and twisted as the grass and twigs touched their belly. As there was no proper arrangement to monitor the post-release conditions it was impossible to determine exactly what fate had in store for them after their newly gifted freedom.
“They say the Leopard and the Langur keep
The courts where Gemunu gloried and drank deep:
And Gothaimbara, that great Warrior - the Wild Buffalo
Stamps over his head, and he lies fast a sleep."