We had been waiting for 15 minutes, our teeth tightly clenched, heartbeats racing. Just as I was about to close my eyes, to find respite from the peaking sun, my eyes collided with Strawberry. She was shy, almost reticent, but unfazed by the dozens of eyes that were on her. Perched atop a high rock with the sunlight making her skin shine like speckles of stars, she seemed to almost bask in the glory of the uninterrupted attention. Her cub, however, seemed bemused and nudged her to leave. He doesn&rsquot like us, I think. And for good measure. Humans have rarely done right by wildlife, and for two beautiful leopards in the prime of their lives, 50 odd humans gawking at them was naturally disturbing.
With a brief stretch and a glance towards us, Strawberry jumped off the rock, with the surefootedness of a ballerina and the strength that befits Yala&rsquos apex predator, and disappeared into the bushes, her cub at her tail. I realised I had been holding my breath for far too long. From the height of a customised safari vehicle, the monsoon greenery of Yala is a sight for sore eyes. Yala is both a nature reserve and a national park, situated in the southeast of the island nation Sri Lanka edged beautifully on the Indian Ocean. It had been an eventful short drive from Wild Coast Tented Lodge, our glamping site that lies in the buffer zone of the park, to the Block 1 of the reserve, and Keith, our verbose ranger, was adamant that we enjoy the park&rsquos magnificent flora and fauna.
&ldquoYala as an area was used to keep prisoners at one point in time, and later, was a hunting ground under British rule. It was designated as a national park in 1938,&rdquo he tells our crew of four Indians. I&rsquom as enamoured by Keith&rsquos stories as I am by the beautiful majestic elephants, sambars, deer and peacocks that call this place home. As a 30-year-something, he has trained in Africa, is one of Sri Lanka&rsquos few reptile handlers, and has been licked by a lion and bitten by a crocodile, the scars of which tell the tale of deep love that rangers here have for the life that inhabits these forests.
But Leopards are the glory of Sri Lankan wildlife. Sri Lanka has the world's highest per-square-mile concentration of Panthera pardus kotiya, a majestic leopard endemic to the country. Within 20 minutes of our visit, we find the beast, Strawberry, a flamboyant confident leopardess who, Keith described, is a diva, with spots shaped like a strawberry on her forehead that discerns her from Jessica, her shy competition in the area. Our ranger&rsquos stories give a life to the animals here - Strawberry&rsquos boyfriend is Cattle Thief, a young leopard who drags cattle from adjacent dwellings in the forest.Judy and Julius are another young couple. Each leopard has a name, a distinct personality and of course, a major fan following, which draws many visitors like us to its gate each year. We were lucky to have seen Strawberry, we are told.
In spite of statistics being in your corner, there are odd days when no one spots a leopard. Still, there&rsquos plenty more to see at Yala. We came across a herd of elephants (lovingly called bush ninjas by rangers here) munching peacefully by the roadside, and by the time we came to a halt, a bunch of cackling human visitors had already descended upon the scene. &ldquoElephants have thought more about their genealogy than humans have, maybe that&rsquos why I love them more,&rdquo Keith laughed, and tells us how male calves are pushed out of the herd before they attain sexual maturity to curb inbreeding. Nature has a way to provide for everything. &ldquoExcept peacocks,&rdquo Keith interrupted my internal musings as a cold draft filled the area, &ldquoIt is still debatable why they have the designs they do on their feathers. But one thing is for sure. Charles Darwin hated them.&rdquo
We continued our drive inside the sanctuary, halting often (much to the chagrin of our driver) as we tried to dig for more stories in all the winged creatures. Monogamous (and many a times suicidal) hornbills, butterflies that make trips to the country from India, often staying for generations, and how wild buffalos, as opposed to their quieter counterparts that dot the Indian streets, are some of Sri Lanka&rsquos wildest beings. At that moment, our driver nudges Keith and they chirp in. He&rsquos on the phone. A leopard&rsquos been sighted. And we were off, with our driver going full pedal-to-the-metal on the uneven dirt roads leaving behind a cloud of smoke.
Having started at the break of dawn from the resort, we stopped for a tea break in the middle of the park as cars continued to hustle and jostle for vantage points at the spot where a leopard sighting was promised. A sumptuous breakfast, courtesy Wild Coast Tented Lodge, was served from a cooler, and over chicken sandwiches and muffins, we delved deeper in the history of Yala, which has more to offer apart from its wild inhabitants. In the heart of the forest is the Monastic settlement of Sithulpawwa, which features a collection of rocky outcrops and caves that are believed to have been home to thousands of inhabitants, a civilisation dating back to the days of the Sri Lankan kings. Many of the tanks that once sustained human life here are now a lifeline to the animals in the wild. &ldquoWe are trying to be more conscious of our efforts here. But every rock here has a history and their disintegration provided the fertile ground for this forest to rise from the ashes. So next time you see an old rock, go give it a warm tight hug,&rdquo Keith says, much to our amusement.
As the sun peaked, we realised it was 11am, and it was time to head back. The ride home was spent exchanging our own stories from the wild as Yala National Park unfolded in cinematic splendour in front of us. A monitor lizard basking in the sun on the ride of the road now provided us a chance to regale Keith with stories of Indian kings who used them in warfare. Closer to the gate, our driver stopped his vehicle next to another cocky young ranger. &ldquoWe saw a leopard, let&rsquos see if you do too,&rdquo he says, with a mischievous grin. A game of classic one-upmanship, and boy am I thankful we were on the other side.