Sri Lanka undoubtedly is the land of the leopard. This is one of the few places in the world where the leopard can claim the moniker of the apex predator of the wilderness. In other continents and countries such as India or Africa, the leopard needs to compete with larger and more formidable predators such as lions, tigers and even Hyenas in the case of Africa.
In Sri Lanka, there is no such predator to compete with the leopard. The occasional scuffle with a wild boar and a sloth bear has been known to occur, but overall the leopards are free to hunt and feed unabated.
This level of freedom has further enabled some of the best daytime sightings of these magnificent predators on the island. Being the top predator in its habitat the leopards are more confident and can be seen out in the open, completely relaxed.
The Sri Lanka Leopard is a unique subspecies that are native to this island. They are also the largest subspecies along with the Iranian Leopard. For the trained eye, one can easily spot the difference between for example an African Leopard and a Sri Lankan Leopard. The facial structure and colouration are the key differentiators.
Hence for anyone keen on covering as many species and subspecies as possible, it is important to visit Sri Lanka and try and photograph and see the Sri Lankan Leopard.
That being the case, the question would arise which is the best place to see leopards in Sri Lanka?
This is a worthy question as Leopards are found in many parts of the island, but they are not seen as well in all places, especially in areas where they are not habituated.
This too is important as habituation to humans and vehicles is key in having great leopard sightings.
From decades of observation and hours spent in the field here are my top 5 places to see leopards in Sri Lanka
#1 – Yala National Park (Block 1)
Undoubtedly the top spot has to go to Yala National Park, the crown jewel of safari parks in the country. This is truly the land of the leopard, with some of the highest if not the highest densities of these amazing predators in the world. The sightings of a beautiful cat walking across the open plains or atop a rocky outcrop is a signature sight in Yala National Park. Many famous leopards have become household names in Yala. In the past big males such as the “Chaitya Male” (known to have been big and strong enough to bring down an adult buffalo) and Hamu were iconic. At present, a very detailed study on the leopards of the park is being carried out whereby over 130 individual leopards have been identified. Even now, new individuals are keen to get identified, which showcases the vast density of these predators in such as small area which is only 142 Square Kilometers. Some of the notable characters during the present era to emerge from Yala are – Lucas, Julius, Harak Hora, and Aster to name a few. A very informative “Leopard Center” is present in the park where visitors can learn more about these predators and also compare one’s sightings with the virtual database and try and identify the leopards they have spotted while on safari.
#2- Wilpattu National Park
The land of lakes, Wilpattu is located on the North-Western end of the island. This is Sri Lanka’s largest national park and is quite a contrast to the landscape of Yala. Where Yala is mostly dry scrub forest, open lagoons and plains, as well as many rocky outcrops, Wilpattu is denser with dark forests being the dominant landscape, along with few open spaces which are usually consisting of natural lakes known as Villus. The dense dark forests make it quite difficult to see these predators, but when they do come onto the roads it is a sight to behold. The open sand brimmed lakes are some of the most beautiful settings to view these magnificent predators. The park was closed for many years during the time of the civil war and was finally opened to the public in 2010. During this time, the leopards were very shy and sightings were almost nonexistent. But over time, after a few years of continuous visitation, the leopards gradually became habituated enough to give some great sightings. Through the years, Wilpattu has become increasingly popular, especially with wildlife purist who seek more private and quieter moments compared to Yala which can tend to be congested and crowded. The chances of seeking leopards in Wilpattu is somewhat harder than Yala, but usually, the reward of the sighting is far greater most of the time due to the lower numbers in the park and the ability to spread out across the landscape given the size of the park. One of the most photographed leopards from back in the day was the infamous “Prince” a.k.a “Natta” who was a young male leopard who was born in the Kompanchi Sampuwal/Pomparippu area and later moved around to many parts of the park.
He was at one time the most photographed leopard in Sri Lanka, giving shows like no other, often sleeping in the middle of the road paying no need to the onlooking people and vehicles. He was named Natta because the end of his tail fell off due to an injury probably with a wild boar or another leopard. He is still alive but has been driven out to the fringes of the park by larger and more dominant males. One of the most famous and well-loved males of the park is the Nelum Wila Male, a massive individual who has a large home range and is seen quite often walking without fear of people. He is the current star of the park and one who poses for the photographs. When it comes to the female’s one of the most beloved leopards has to be “Cleopatra” the beautiful female who was known as a playful cub from Borupanwila. Now a successful mother with her brood of cubs is seen by lucky visitors mostly in the Mahapatessa area with her cubs.
#3 Kumana National Park
Kumana, the land of mystery and awe is located on the far eastern corner of the island. It is connected to Yala and is part of the same ecosystem. But due to the access and location, it is quite a long drive to reach compared to Yala. Kumana was initially famous as a bird sanctuary with many species of birds nesting in the waters of Kumana Villu. But in the last decade or so, there has been an increasing number of leopard sightings in the park. The legends say the leopards of Kumana are known to be “man-eaters” and the leopards of Lenama (an area in the park) are mythically known to be larger and deadlier. But the reality is that these two are the same leopards that you see in Yala. But there have been cases of man-eaters in the park which are more than in many other parts of the island. In 2019 a construction worker was taken and eaten by a large male, who subsequently attacked and severely injured another individual who went to retrieve the body of the victim. Thereafter in 2020, another leopard attacked a farmer in the nearby area of Panama while sleeping in his watch hut. The man succumbed to his injuries. The same leopard thereafter attacked a few men on patrol at night in the fringes of their farms. The authorities managed to capture the culprit who was released deep inside the park which caused much controversy.
Despite these individual cases, the number of sightings of leopards continues increasing as the animals become more habituated. The advantage of seeing leopards in Kumana is the privacy and lack of large crowds. Given the remoteness and difficulty to get to the park has resulted in making this one of Sri Lanka’s best-kept secrets.
#4 Veheragala (Yala Block 5)
The Veheragala National Park, also known as Yala Block 5 became popular in the last 6 years as an alternative to Yala Block 5. The small land extends borders to the giant Veheragala reservoir and is less visited than its more famous counterpart. This park is also known for its fair number of leopards, often seen on the main road which runs through the park. The high density of prey animals such as Spotted Deer and Grey Langur may have resulted in the number of leopards seen, and gradual habituation has helped greatly in giving quality sightings. This is a great park to combine with when visiting Block 1 to get away from crowds and to get a change in landscape.
#5 Horton Plains National Park
The misty highlands of Sri Lanka is hardly a place one would imagine encountering a leopard. But despite this, historically, the highlands are where most of the island forests are covered, it was and where most of the wildlife animals roamed. With the onset of the British taking over the country, they cleared these vast forests to grow Coffee and subsequently Tea.
One of the last remaining highland wilderness refuges is Horton Plains, National Park. Located over 2500 meters above sea level, this montane wilderness is set atop a high plateau and is one of Mother Nature’s most spectacular wonders.
Once even used by the government at the time to grow potatoes it was later declared a National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This land is one of the most sensitive and ecologically significant locations in the country – with a vast number of plants and animal life being endemic and found nowhere else in the world.
The park was very popular for its scenic landscapes and walking trails. Subsequently was highly valued as a top birding destination to see some of the rare highland endemic species.
In the last few years, through countless visits and patience, this too has produced some unforgettable leopard encounters.
The kings of this domain, these predators are found in the deep dense cloud forests and on the fringes of the open plains which are the main landscapes of this habitat.
Feeding primarily on Sambhur the largest species of deer in Sri Lanka these cats seem to have a few physiological differences from their lowland cousins. The Horton Plains Leopards seem to be much larger in physical size and their faces wider with shorter muzzle areas giving them a stouter and wider look.
A study carried out by a scientific team consisting of Dr Enoka Kudavidanage in 2020 has identified 23 adult leopards found in the park.
Seeing these majestic predators is much harder than in the lowlands, but with a trained eye and patience, you might have a chance in getting a glimpse of these highland beauties.