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Top 5 Places in Sri Lanka to see Leopards

Top 5 Places in Sri Lanka to see Leopards

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. 

Santani Wellness Resort & Spa

Santani Wellness Resort & Spa

Seeking out the latest innovations in health science from around the world to harmonize with the most effective treatments among the rich heritage of Ayurveda in Sri Lanka, thus creating one of the best wellness resorts for guests.

Building upon the global philosophy and extensive therapeutic amenities, Santani takes a lifestyle approach to wellness with two essential components: to pamper your body in an environment designed at every level to revitalize you and to educate your mind so that you leave with healthy habits and practices which allow you to sustain greater mental, spiritual and physical well-being for years to come. That is the Santani lifestyle.

How does this work in practice? The expert team at Santani will help you set aside the stresses of daily life when you come to Santani and allow them to detox your body while you naturally harmonize yourself within this serene atmosphere.

As muscles, including the mind, relax, watch your body bend in new ways and your spirits rise. Your mind soaks up new knowledge and practices, which you take back when you leave. Beyond the plethora of healthy indulgences for the mind, body and spirit at Santani, the success rests upon the mindfulness that is imparted so that you may thrive in every aspect of your life back home.

The contemporary design of the dwellings is based on the concept of the ‘ambalama’, which is the Sri Lankan word meaning ‘place of rest.’ Historically, pilgrims and traders moved around this sun-kissed island on foot. Simple shelters called ambalama’s came into being, offering these travellers somewhere safe to rest up for the next leg of a long journey. This human need to rest has not changed; today’s travellers are also in need of a place to rest up along the journey of life.

Stylish and utterly comfortable, the interiors too are deliberately minimal. As in ancient Buddhist meditation caves in the mountains surrounding Santani, this lack of distraction allows you to focus your mind solely on slowing it down.

To further support your efforts to ‘reset,’ the rooms do not have televisions. While digital detox is a key component of the Santani experience, the property does offer in-room WiFi on demand.

By blurring the distinction between inside and out, these private retreats invite you to rest, relax or meditate while inhaling the pure fresh air and taking in the pristine, truly inspiring scenery around you.

There are 16 Mountain View Chalets that overlook the surrounding mountain range.

Leave your structured, stressful life behind. The vision of Santani is for you to allow the healing to happen at your natural pace. You will find no pre-set ‘one size fits all’ wellness packages at Santani. Arrive, if you wish, with goals in mind, then work together with your dedicated wellness concierge to customize a unique programme of activities strategically designed towards reaching your goals. Unless you want a strict, precisely defined schedule, it is generally a flexible approach to wellness, one which encourages spontaneity and curiosity to stimulate the mind as much as these activities create shifts in the body and spirit.

Wake up early and meditate if the cooler, misty mornings inspire you. Or perhaps your inner night owl likes to wind down the day on the yoga mat. Santani is all about offering you space, freedom and support to find your way.

Santani has been thoughtfully conceived to offer naturally healing landscapes, holistic architecture, delectable food and deep knowledge of health and wellness from the traditional to the scientific plus a stimulating array of life-enhancing pursuits. These include yoga, detox and cleansing therapies, Ayurveda, meditation, cardio and holistic fitness, mountain hiking, jungle gyms and swimming in natural pools just to name a few.

The intention is to empower you to choose among these what to do, or not do in the moment, then try another path whenever you so desire. Freedom to seek, to choose and to thrive is what Santani is all about.

Sri Lanka’s wellness heritage dates back more than 5,000 years. Whether or not we take the Ramayana literally, it is true that medicinal plants found here do not grow anywhere else other than in the Himalayas. These therapeutic plants form the basis for Ayurveda, a two-part Sanskrit word, Ayur meaning ‘life’ and Veda meaning ‘knowledge.’ A comprehensive, holistic approach to healthy living Ayurveda remains extremely relevant within the context of modern wellness.

Ayurveda in Sri Lanka is characterized by two distinct forms of treatment: Shamana alleviates symptoms and Shodhana, which translates as ‘to wash away,’ cleanses the body to remove the root causes of dis-ease. Detox and cleansing programmes at Santani are deeply rooted in these ancient therapies proven effective over the centuries.

Cricket- A Nations Passion

Cricket- A Nations Passion

A remnant from our colonial past has grown to become a national pastime. Even on a busy weekday, you can easily find a throng of people staring across the glass of an electronic store that has tuned in their brand new TVs to the ongoing match. The talk of any office discussion would usually be of yesterday’s match. Any group of boys and men if they have some spare time, would invariably pick up a bat and ball and play a game of Cricket be it in their back yards, or while on vacation, in a park. This game has single-handedly brought this nation together.

Even during the times of the civil war which ravaged our country, the war itself stopped for a game of cricket, especially when Sri Lanka won the 1996 World Cup. A day that would forever be etched, in the memories of those who were alive to witness its glory. Our team, a humble mix of young men from varying backgrounds became superstars overnight. Their famous Blue and Yellow jerseys became a household fashion accessory for young boys and men alike.

When travelling across the island from the Southern Coastal fishing villages to the far North of Jaffna, you are very likely to see a group of boys playing a game of Cricket and having a great time in the process.

Despite the ups and downs in the international game, and the performances of our national team, the eternal hope and passion for this game will forever be etched in the Sri Lankan way of life.

Kevans Casa

Kevans Casa

Located in Mahiyanganaya, Kevans Casa is the perfect base to explore some of the “lesser-known” wonders of Sri Lanka.

From an exclusive audience with the indigenous Veddah tribe, or a stunning early morning sunrise and outdoor breakfast overlooking the Sorabora Lake, or maybe a daring hike up the legendary “Aien Rock” Dani Gala, Mahiyangaya has many places to explore and is vastly unknown to mainstream tourism.

Kevans Casa is located perfectly in the heart of Mahiyanganaya, consisting of elegantly designed bedrooms with all modern facilities and comforts.

Vaada Baila – Musical Lyrical Debate, A Lost Sri Lankan Folk Art

Vaada Baila – Musical Lyrical Debate, A Lost Sri Lankan Folk Art

A traditional content would commence with a first-round where each of the contestants sings on their faith. The next round focuses on paying respect to parents, teachers and elders. After the show begins, the gloves come off as the contestants are pitted against each other in an unrelenting lyrical contest.

Some of the vaada baila singers popular at the time were Maradana W. A. Ruban Perera, Modara Justin, Ratmalana T. D. Gunathilake, Dematagoda B. Don Richard, Rajagiriya Marshall, Punchi Borella T. S.D. Siriwardena and Welikada Sunil Atapattu – who all followed the convention of taking as part of their names the localities they represented.

Sri Lanka’s version of a “Rap Battle”

Classic Sri Lanka in its tradition of showcasing the “real Sri Lanka” can bring this traditional art closer to you by organizing a unique Vaada Baila show with two of Sri Lanka’s foremost lyrical champions. An atmosphere and experience as authentic as it gets, mingle with local baila enthusiasts and witness this long lost tradition come to life and pick the winner. Even though the language of these verses may be unknown to you, the atmosphere and interaction with the local communities and their celebration of music and life are what makes this a truly authentic and immersive Sri Lankan experience.

Pettah- An Open-Air Supermarket

Pettah- An Open-Air Supermarket

This experience is focused on walking through the open-air market, exploring its quirky nooks and crannies. You will meet traders, learn about historic buildings and marvel at their architecture as you navigate a maze of trade, traffic and local banter.

Pettah is a chaotic, crowded smorgasbord of sights and sounds. But it is also the go-to place for a variety of items, from plastic, toys, electronics to mechanical parts.

‘Pettah’, in local parlance, refers to the Pettah Market, an expanse of shops extending from Olcott Mawatha to Main Street and beyond. The name ‘Pettah’ is derived from the Tamil word ‘Pettai’, used to indicate a suburb outside a fort. The Sinhalese word for the area, ‘Pita-Kotuwa’, meaning ‘outside the fort’, correlates with this.

As indicated by its name, Pettah or Pita-Kotuwa is the area outside the fort the Portuguese built in the 16th century. The fort was besieged by the Dutch in 1656, who demolished part of the fort and rebuilt it to take advantage of the natural strength of the location. After the British took over in 1815, they set about establishing control in Colombo, and in 1870 demolished the walls of the fort. Despite the absence of ramparts, the area continues to be known as Colombo Fort.

‘Pettah’, and more specifically the Pettah Market, lies just outside what remains of Colombo Fort and is a bustling bazaar of hawkers, shops, vendors and buyers. Architecture from the colonial period stands as the backdrop to the daily hustle and bustle; the Wolvendaal Church, the strikingly red and white Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, the Khan Clock Tower and the Dutch Period Museum watch as life in the 21st Century passes by. Trade in Pettah is dominated by Muslim and Tamil businessmen, but tradesmen from Sinhalese and other minority ethnic groups also operate here. It is usually very crowded, and it is better to undertake the task of shopping there on foot, although there is a car park near the Khan Clock Tower, where buyers arriving in vehicles can park until their shopping is done.

The streets of Pettah are in a constant state of flux; nattamis dart to and fro, unloading heavy gunny sacks of fruit and vegetables from trucks and carrying them to wholesale stores, while buyers in their dozens sidestep them on narrow lanes.  Carts laden with apples, grapes, oranges and other ‘imported’ fruit stand at every street corner, while tiny kiosks serve colourful ‘cool’ in glasses.

After you exit Pettah you can take a short walk through the last remains of the colonial era Colombo Fort Wall and then explore a historic church erected during the Dutch colonial period.

Reptile Group Expedition

Reptile Group Expedition

40628736_2106232223027283_7109409788261302272_nClassic Sri Lanka is Sri Lanka’s premier Wildlife Tour Operator, with deep knowledge and understanding about local ecology and biodiversity, which enables to cater to a wide range of interests and specialities.

Our annual group from the USA specializes in seeking and photographing the reptile diversity of our island, with a special interest in snakes.

Guided by expert herpetologists, this group travelled across 41510377_1839008246154121_1988951693525516288_nthe island, from the mangroves of Matara to the rainforests of Kitulgala and the dry zones of Mannar, seeking the rare, and elusive snakes and other reptiles found in Sri Lanka. The tour was a great success with encounters with some of the most sought after species of snakes including the iconic Russells Viper, Spectacled Cobra, Saw Scaled Viper, Green Pit Viper and both variants of the Hump Nosed Viper. Besides the snakes, the group also were lucky to see the endemic Rhino Horned Lizard and Pygmy Lizard as well as giant Salt Water Crocodiles in Matara.

A Marvellous Birding Tour

A Marvellous Birding Tour

Sinharaja _MG_0973 February 15, 2014After initiating the first COVID lockdown in the island, inbound tours had to take a considerable break amidst the pandemic. But during the post-lockdown period, we were able to initiate some incredible adventure and wildlife tours, which were mainly targeted at the Sinharaja _MG_2559 June 18, 2012locals.

Among them was the birding adventure to Sinharaja National Reserve.

We ventured into Sri Lanka’s largest tract of lowland rainforests and UNESCO World Heritage Sites in search of the beautiful endemic birds found in this region. Sinharaja arguably is the most important ecological site for the island with the highest rate of endemism seen in both flora and fauna. The island has 34 endemic species of birds, IMG-20200914-WA0050and outIMG-20200916-WA0049 of which over 22 can be seen here. Our group was led by our head naturalist who with over two decades of field experience excelled in showcasing to the client’s 26 endemic species of birds, and 67 species of birds, 5 species of mammals, 6 species of reptiles, 14 species of butterflies and 5 species of dragonflies. Among the highlights of the tour was the sighting of two Serendib Scops Owls, arguably the most sought after bird in Sri Lanka. These amazing owls are very difficult to find especially given their nocturnal nature. The use of the best local trackers helped in locating a roosting pair deep in the jungle and enabled the tour-goers to witness an unforgettable sighting.IMG-20200916-WA0031

IMG-20200916-WA0053A venture into the natural world is truly enhanced by its storytellers, and a world-class naturalist brings out the wonders of nature in a whole new light!

Face to Face with the Devil

Face to Face with the Devil

An Encounter with the Forest Eagle Owl – By Rajiv Welikala

Driving down a dark misty road on a chilly July morning in Wilpattu National Park I came across a sighting which will haunt me forever. A dark shadow passed over us and we saw a large bird fly along the tunnelled forest canopy. The approaching jeep must have disturbed it as it dropped something large on the road while in flight. We drove up and found a large partially eaten snake, too damaged for identification. Suspecting this was the work of a Serpent Eagle which is very common in the park, we drove on till we reached an opening on the other end. The bright light came through the dense forest canopy as we slowly entered Iriyakkulam Villu.  C52A4990My trusted jeep driver Senevi always ensures to enter a villu with much caution so as not to startle any animals that might have come out into the open. The crawling jeep suddenly came to a sudden stop as Senevi pointed ahead. I looked everywhere in the open glades, expecting a leopard to be crouching in the villu. We had a very barren weekend with very few sightings of animals and we were desperate to see anything. My scouring did not reveal a spotted feline, but rather a massive owl perched on a tree ahead. It took me a few seconds to fathom what I was seeing; as such a sight was never expected. When it hit me, it came like a thunderbolt. This was the infamous Devil Bird! I have dreamt of seeing this elusive bird for many years, and here it was sitting right in front of me. The correct name of the bird is the Spot Bellied Eagle Owl or Forest Eagle Owl (Bubo nipalensis). Its black hollow eyes gave a stare which would give the shivers to even the hardest of men. This bird was subject to many folk stories and is known as the “Ulama” in Sinhalese. It is said that the bird is the bringer of death and its blood-curdling cry is said to sound like a woman being strangled. Still, in awe and utter disbelief, I started clicking away with my camera. The bird was clearly annoyed with our presence; it flew out into the open where it landed on the dried grass on the banks of the villu. It was too far away for my camera and I waited patiently for him to fly to a better location. When it took off it flew with the grace and majesty that befits such a mighty bird with its large wings outstretched and talons which are bigger than any other bird I have seen, it landed heavily on a very fragile branch of a tree. The tree was occupied by a troupe of Grey Langurs who are at times prey for this large predatory bird. Wilpattu (1 of 1)-24The monkeys were hooting and jumping from branch to branch in fright which distracted the startled owl. The flimsy branch gave way and the bird fell to the white sands below. Clearly ruffled and in utter annoyance the owl stood there in all its glory on the white sands of the villu whilst brilliant golden sunlight created a magnificent photo opportunity which just presented itself. After regaining its bearings the bird flew deep into the forest, and we continued on our way and left the bird to its meal. I left Wilpattu that day with a feeling of immense luck and disbelief in being fortunate enough to come face to face with the magnificent Devil Bird.

Fast Food Snacks !

Fast Food Snacks !

Sri Lanka has its own unique forms of fast food snacks to be had on the go. These are tasty and convenient bites which are loved by the locals and a must try for any foodie visiting the island.

One of the most iconic is the “Maalu Paan” of fish bun, which is a triangle shaped bun (always a triangle), which is stuffed with mainly potatoes, pepper and a hint of fish (despite its name, its mainly potato based). The secret to a good Maalu Paan is its correct fish to potato ratio. Too much of each might offset the balance in taste. Some of the most famous outlets where one can try ones hand at tasting these delectable baked goods is Perera & Sons (a famous bakery chain), Fab (an upmarket bakery chain), as well as any roadside bakery which will invariable have its own version of this bun, some good some bad, and some average.

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(Maalu Paan)

One of the most iconic sounds one can hear in Colombo, its suburbs and now even in the villages is the infamous “Choon Paan” which is a tuk tuk or trishaw which has been transformed into a mobile bakery outlet which drives around the roads, stopping at certain points like an ice cream truck with the uniform tune of Beethovan’s “Fur Eliza” playing loudly in the background. This brings us to another famous baked snack which is much loved by children and adults alike, especially during tea time, the “Kimbula Banis” which is translated as Crocodile Bun. This long bun is tapered at both ends, almost like a straightened croissant and sprinkled generously with sugar is a sweet snack to be enjoyed with a nice cup of Ceylon Tea.

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(Kimbula Banis)

Another snack which is popular among Sri Lankan folks is the Chinese Roll, which is made at home and also sold in shops. Despite its name it has nothing to do with China or Chinese cuisine, but rather it’s a rolled pancake stuffed with fish or vegetables, which is deep fried and coated with breadcrumbs to produce a crunch and delicious snack.

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(Chinese Roll)

Many of the local eateries produce a form of rotti which is generally consisting of potatoes, leeks and onions which is also triangular in shape and prepared by heating the rotti on a hot plate. This is known locally as “Elawalu Rotti”.

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(Elawalu Rotti)

Come on a gastronomical journey with Classic Sri Lanka and learn about all the mouth-watering delights our island has to offer.