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Close Encounters of the Pachyderm Kind

On Safari in Yala National Park

sunny 89 °F

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Up close with one of Yala National Park's male elephants

NEW! Watch these youtube videos from safari in Yala NP

Approach of a male elephant

Nothing beats finding the right tree to sractch that itch!

Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to see leopards in the wild. And the best spot here is Yala National Park. I booked a full-day safari through my hotel, trusting them to know a good operator. The way it works here is you show up at the park with your vehicle or tour, and a park ranger hops in and accompanies you. Between the driver and ranger, they pick your route on the numerous, rutted dirt roads through the park. It is up to them — and you — to spot the animals. Some criticize Yala because it does not limit the vehicles per day, which they say could lead to crowds of vehicles around the animals.
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Jeeps lined up first thing in the morning, ready to get a jump on a day's safari

This occurred only once during my safari, and it was near the entrance when a leopard was spotted. It was on the main route in, so a backup occurred. Our vehicle ended up perhaps 10th in line, and by the time we got into position to take a photo, the leopard had walked away. I did glimpse his silhouette through the bushes, though, regal and much larger than I imagined, sunning himself on a rock. After that, our vehicle managed to get lost in the wide open spaces of the park. We saw other vehicles, but wouldn't hit another backup until we were on our way out around eight hours later.
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Water buffalos enjoying a cool, green watering hole

Along the way, we spotted a wide array of animals. The most abundant were probably water buffalo. We'd come upon groups of them wading in watering holes, sometimes with just their heads and huge, curving horns sticking out of the water. We also saw lots of varieties of deer (favorite prey of the leopards). Unlike most animals in Yala, they were usually shy and would bolt off into the brush if we came too close. Even the bucks, with their large antlers, would eventually scurry off. We also lots of wild boar, wallowing in the mud of the watering holes.
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Happy as pigs in...well, you know!

Our ranger pointed out the bewildering variety of bird life, too. We saw eagles, storks, brilliant blue kingfishers, herons, and more. It was kind of humorous how he would get excited about species rare in Sri Lanka, but common back home. I think when I didn't take pictures of the “wild ducks” the first couple of times he pointed them out, he got the idea that I wasn't excited by them. My favorite birds that we saw over and over in the park were the peacocks. None of the males spread their feathers wide for us, but you could see the brilliant colors anyway. Listening to their bizarre calls, I realized that it was the animal that was the giant bird in the animated movie Up was based upon.
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Mama Elephant keeping a watchful eye on us as Baby dines

By far, the best close encounters with animals in the park were with elephants. The elephants in Yala are apparently habituated to people, though definitely still wild. The first time was when we were in an elevated road overlooking a muddy watering hole. A male elephant was in the mud, happily spraying himself with mud. He was would use his trunk to alternate between taking drinks of water and using it to splatter his backs with galoopfuls of cooling, mud. The driver and ranger knew what would likely happen next, so we stayed put as the elephant slowly approached, climbed on the roadway, and approached within one car-length of us. But he wasn't interested in us. There was a nice big tree which he proceeded to scratch on side of his body against, then slowly, leisurely the other side, too. I kept alternating between photos and videos, enjoying the show, being so close to such a great beast. In the afternoon, we had a similarly up close encounter with a mother elephant and her baby. They also proceeded to slowly stroll past our jeep, feeding as they went. It was a great experience, but I was still holding out hopes of seeing a leopard!
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Highland toque monkey, one of the two species I saw in Yala

What else did we see? We saw mongoose several times — including one climbing trees in search of bird eggs. We saw Gray Langur monkeys, as well as the Highland Toque, which I'd been seeing at temples throughout Sri Lanka. We spotted numerous crocodiles — most partially or nearly all submerged in the brown water of the pools. They looked like logs in perfect camouflage. A couple were seen basking in the sun on the water’s edge, one with his jaws wide open. We saw a few jackals, busily trotting about on some errand.
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If I was that bird in the midst of those crocodiles, I'd be a bit more nervous than he appears to be!

The last couple hours I kept scanning the branches of the trees in hopes of spotting a leopard dozing the afternoon away on a branch. When my hotel chose a driver, they chose wisely. Towards the end of he safari, he inexplicably stopped. The driver and range spoke together, then said there was a leopard about 100 meters away in the trees. He slowly pointed out the right tree, then worked his way up to the right branch. I did see a lighter patch in the obscuring foliage. And then I saw the leopard’s tail, which had looked like a branch, slowly curl, then unwind. It baffled me that anyone could spot this while driving the curving, bumpy roads. He had proved himself time and again on the safari to have amazing vision for picking out the animals. I honestly think he spotted more than our ranger, who was in his 30th year with the park service and very experienced.
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My blurry, cellphone camera pic of a leopard in Yala NP

Was that to be the closest I got to seeing a leopard? The coyly curving tail and the earlier, briefly glimpsed silhouette? Well, remember that first (and only, to this point) traffic backup, when we were too far in the rear to get a clear view of the leopard. As we approached that spot, w saw another, smaller logjam of perhaps six vehicles? Could it be? Yes! Two leopard basking themselves in the late afternoon sun. Our ranger pointed them out, then hopped out to direct traffic. It wasn't long before I had a great vantage point. Unfortunately, with no telephoto lens on my phone camera, my pictures suffered at Yala. It had done a great job throughout Sri Lanka, but here it's limitations were apparent. I'll remember that next time I take a safari — wherever that may be. Bring a telephoto lens if you want good shots of animals…especially leopards!
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In the about 90 degree heat, the water buffalos have the right idea!

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:45 Archived in Sri Lanka

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