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  • Writer's pictureDilini de Soyza

Wilpattu – the leopard haven of Sri Lanka

Updated: May 26, 2020

After visiting Yala in December 2015 and being inundated with a horde of vehicles and crazy tourists I gave up on the Sri Lankan national parks, instead concentrating on the African parks I love so much. But my heart still lies in the jungles of Sri Lanka so in December 2019 I decided that it was time to give my home country another try, especially after the devastating Easter attacks that left the country’s tourism industry in shambles. But this time I chose Wilpattu National Park located in the Northwest coast of Sri Lanka which just like Yala is known for its leopard sightings, albeit at a lesser intensity.

This trip was a special one for us. While Wilpattu is my dad’s favourite park having visited it many times in his youth, I had never visited it with my parents. Hubby too hadn’t been to this part of the country. In my opinion, Wilpattu is the prettiest national park in Sri Lanka – I’d only visited a handful of times but I truly loved the peace and tranquility the park offered.

December isn’t the best time to visit Wilpattu and this time the rainy season had been particularly bad and long. Some parts of the park were inaccessible and the roads were in pretty bad condition. I knew going in that the quantity of sightings were going to be low but with good guides we could still get lucky. And the park truly is beautiful after the rains with green everywhere and the willus full of water.

We opted to stay at Wilpattu Safari Camp. The owners of this camp have been Facebook friends of mine for a long time but I’d never met them. Namal was there to greet us and we knew that we were among kindred spirits. The tents reminded me of my beloved Africa and were uber comfortable. The food was unbelievably good and the company even better. My one regret on this trip is that we didn’t get to enjoy the camp or Namal’s hospitality much as we opted to do full day drives in the park. That meant that we’d leave camp at around 5.30am and return at 7.00pm.

Our main focus at Wilpattu was leopards. Our most memorable sighting came on our second full day drive when we came across the Nelumvila male lying around on the middle of the road at Uda Para. He lay there for about 5 minutes while vehicles gathered behind us. Being one of the first three vehicles to arrive at the scene we got some nice footage. This leopard is quite bold and used to vehicles. However, something startled him and he suddenly disappeared into the bushes. At this point we couldn’t see him at all and most vehicles hung around for about 10-15 minutes and went on their merry way. However, we along with a handful of vehicles decided to hang around longer.

About 20 minutes later we were rewarded when the big boy came back onto the road and started to walk in our direction. We decided to pull back and give him space and this also provided us with the opportunity to get some pretty amazing shots of him walking straight towards us. We were also impressed with how well the jeep drivers handled this situation. They remained calm and after discussing with each other would pull back to a distance whereby we could get some good shots without getting in the way of the leopard and without blocking other people’s viewpoints. We spent about 30 minutes with this handsome dude and it was definitely the highlight of our trip.

We had a few other leopard sightings during our three days at Wilpattu and even caught a glimpse of a bear but this park has a lot more to offer than just leopards and bears. The bird life is quite interesting and the fact that there were water holes in the middle of the road meant that there were birds everywhere. In this regard, a special sighting was coming across a Crested Hawk Eagle having a bath in a water hole in the middle of the road. He was quite engrossed in his bath and had no intention of giving way so we happily hung around while his majesty got done with his bath.

We also saw Painted Storks and Pond Herons fishing and while they are common birds it’s always a pleasure being able to get close to any bird, common or otherwise. Another interesting feature about Wilpattu that I’ve noticed is that birds tend to hang around beneath the canopy which gives rise to eye level shots. It’s quite a bizarre feeling being able to photograph a Fish Owl or a Serpent Eagle at eye level but that’s exactly what we were lucky enough to experience.

Another memorable sighting was an elephant that we found at one of the willus. He was an old boy and was loving the tall grass in the water. He had developed an interesting routine whereby he would pluck an entire trunk full, give it a vigorous shake before popping it in his mouth. This of course made for some fabulous shots with water droplets flying everywhere.

Our four nights at Wilpattu produced less sightings than if we had gone in the dry season, but this is a special park whichever season you choose to go. And it was truly special being in the jungles of Sri Lanka again with my family. After all that’s where my appreciation and tremendous love for all things nature and wildlife came into fruition and I look forward to being back ‘home’ soon!

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