In the wildlife park of Wilpattu, which covers 1,300 square kilometers and is the largest in Sri Lanka, you’ll be lucky to spot that lightning-fast big cat.
The park is green and lush. The overflowing ponds and meter-deep puddles are the only traces left of the monsoon that I caught the last vestiges of that morning. The name Wilpattu is derived from “Willu Pattu”, “The Land of Lakes”. The park is known for its willus – natural, sand-rimmed water basins or depressions that fill with rainwater.
Yet it’s another sight we’re here to see. We are on the lookout for the illustrious leopard, a quest that luckily seems to have penetrated even the heart and soul of our vehicle. The four-wheel drive growls and skids its way along without a hitch.
The park claims that leopards here number anywhere between 30 and 60. At the entrance to the park, photographs of the glorious big cats form a welcoming committee. They lie languorously stretched out in the sun or draped high on a tree branch, looking bored with eyes half-closed, like a cat on a windowsill.
The photos create the impression that you need only wander a little bit before coming across one somewhere, anywhere, just like lions in a Kenyan reserve. Yet, after a full day of cruising, peering through binoculars, checking for dung and swapping information with other jeeps, our optimism turns to vain hope and then despair. “Like needles in a haystack,” comments our ranger.
My fellow companions start to lose the plot. They think they see leopards’ tails everywhere disappearing into the long grass. The mission takes on absurd dimensions. We start to feel like we are being watched from the bushes. That the leopards are scampering across the road behind us as we anxiously scan the edge of the forest. That they’re hitching a ride on the roof of the jeep. Jay, our host from Kulu Safaris, tells us that they’ve seen six leopards over several days, cubs and all! What a score. We start to feel as if we are searching for the abominable snowman, which we all know exist only in fairy tales.
The sun has already gone down and we’re driving back to camp when we hear the alarm of deer barking in the distance. In the twilight with the motor off, we wait. In the distance, backlit against the pale sandy path, we see the distinctive silhouette of a leopard for just a moment. Then he is gone, but that is enough for us.
That evening, back at the wilderness camp after a hot bush shower and a cold beer, with the full moon coming up over the lake, I feel completely at one with the world. I am exhausted as I dive into my bed and close my eyes. Out of my dream flies a pure white Indian Paradise Fly Catcher, the most beautiful bird in Sri Lanka. I have seen at least six today.
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