"Sal blossoms lie soft and moist under my feet like a fragrant carpet. Mists drift wraith-like through the trees pulled by unseen hands, and the rain plays a gentle refrain on the leaves. A kind of sadness fills the air and seeps into my soul. Even the birds and the crickets are hushed, as if in mourning. The mystique of an awesome, almost magical presence, never seen but always felt, is no more. The forest will never be the same again."
- P. K. Ghosh
While many believe the leopard population is increasing in India - particularly as a result of its highly adaptable nature, enabling the animal to survive in secondary and marginal forest, in close association with humans - the same cannot be said in Sri Lanka.
With restricted lands, and fragmented prey populations, the leopard is slowly being herded into a few remaining sanctuaries; islands in a vast sea of disciplined, agricultural land.
In the old days, at Wilpattu, Sri Lanka’s prime wildlife sanctuary, the reputedly elusive leopard, had become sufficiently bold to walk the jungle paths by day; flaunting its dappled coat in the shade of rain trees and lianas. But times have changed and the leopard has found its shadow unveiled by the persecution of humankind; becoming far shyer and essentially nocturnal. They now show themselves rarely. An occasional vaporous sawing call, a sudden explosive cough, the nervous chatter of monkeys, or the barking alarms of stags, may shatter the silence of the night, and betray his existence to the full moon. But the leopard now hunts invisibly; a spectre by day, a ghost of the night.
The leopard's natural history began around three million years ago, its origins in the primeval savannahs of India. The ancestral cat, with a heavy build suited to the open plains and sparse, dry forests, spread forever eastwards and southwards, leaving behind isolated populations as it travelled. These subsequently evolved on subtly different lines. Amongst them the Javan, the Amur and Anatolian of Russia and China and the African. Some even believe that the Sri Lankan race has evolved sufficiently from the mainland Indian leopard, to be granted its own sub-species, Panthera pardus kotiya. (‘Kotiya’ in Sinhalese, the local language of Sri Lanka, means ‘tiger’. It should actually be ‘diviya’ - I have no idea how this error was overlooked).
What is often forgotten in the evolutionary tale of the leopard is the close relationship it shared with a now distant cousin, the jaguar. Both big cats survived and continued to evolve, side by side, in Eurasia. From there, the jaguar pushed southwards into Africa, crossing the Bering Land Bridge into early North America. As the continents drifted, and the bridge retreated beneath the waves, the cousins became separated forever, leaving the leopard to roam the vast kingdoms of Eurasia and Africa alone. Throughout most of its range, the leopard soon retreated to the cover of the trees, out-manoeuvred on the plains by the lion and the tiger. Taking on an almost arboreal way of life, it lost its bulk, and became an agile climber, relying on stealth and cunning to catch its prey.
In Sri Lanka, the leopard's only real adversary is the sloth bear, an awkward yet deceptively efficient killer. But they share a mutual respect for each other's capabilities.
Perhaps it is the leopard's adaptability that may be its reckoning. As the contours of the land are changed over decades, at a rate not experienced for thousands of years, the cat may retreat to the highlands, or seek isolation in the remote mountains. Indeed I have heard tales of a mountain race of leopards in the hills of central Sri Lanka, in the Horton Plains National Park for one, where the cats have become paler in coloration and thicker in coat. There have been tantalizing glimpses throughout the years, but no true photographic evidence to my knowledge.
But there is a place where you may find them still, on Leopard Rock in the Yala National Park, in South East Sri Lanka - where I have been fortunate enough to experience the majesty of the animal at close quarters.
A solitary sentinel, a recumbent shadow, revealed by the setting, auburn sun. He may betray himself behind the plains grass, or the branch of an acacia; keeping his distance, and waiting. Waiting for dusk, waiting for the scents of this wild earth to return to him, where he may walk surely, the keeper and his kingdom.