Elusive Cats: Spotting the Sri Lanka Leopard

Nestled along the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka, Yala National Park stands as one of the most renowned wildlife sanctuaries for seeing the Sri Lanka leopard. Spanning an impressive 979 square kilometres, this protected area encompasses a diverse array of ecosystems, including dense jungles, sprawling grasslands, and picturesque lagoons. However, it is the park’s thriving population of majestic Sri Lanka leopards that steals the spotlight.

Recognised for its high density of leopards, Yala National Park offers a unique opportunity to witness these graceful predators up close. Leopards are solitary animals that are active mostly at night. They are excellent climbers and swimmers, and they use their skills to hunt a variety of prey, including deer, wild boar, and monkeys.

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Where do leopards live?

There are 9 subspecies of leopards in the world extending over a vast range of land, from jungles to deserts. Their natural habitat includes large areas of Africa, parts of the Middle East, a large part of Asia including Cambodia and India, and even China and Russia. However, as humans have increasingly taken over these areas, the leopard’s territory has shrunk, along with their population numbers.

In Sri Lanka, you’ll find the Sri Lankan Leopard, (Panthera pardus kotiya), one of the larger leopards in the world. Throughout Sri Lanka, leopards still wander through both protected and unprotected habitats. In the hills of central Sri Lanka, they can be found on tea estates, eucalyptus plantations, and even sometimes in home gardens.

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All about leopards

Leopards are strong and agile hunters- they can run up to 58 km per hour and can leap up to 6 meters across. They are good climbers, often dragging their kill up into trees to keep it away from other animals, though due to lack of competition, this happens less often in Sri Lanka than in other locations. 

These big cats can often be found resting in trees as well, so make sure to look up when on safari! Leopards are nocturnal, doing most of their hunting at night, so you will most likely see them resting during the day. They are also active at dawn and dusk.

Leopards are known for their distinctive coats- they have clusters of black spots called “rosettes” that are unique to each individual. Guides can identify each animal by the pattern of their spots as well as their face shape and colouring. 

These big cats stalk their prey, ultimately killing them with a bite to the neck or throat, or even killing smaller animals with a swipe of their paw. These carnivores eat everything from antelope and monkeys to mice and insects. In Sri Lanka, they tend to eat mostly deer, boar, and monkeys.

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Male leopards can be up to 50% larger than female leopards and can weigh more than 175 pounds. Including their tail, they can stretch to over 4.5 feet long. Wild leopards have a lifespan of up to 12 years.

Leopard spots help them camouflage in the trees and grasses. They also have a very strong sense of smell. They are territorial animals, often spraying or marking their territory with both scent and scratch marks. Most leopards are solitary creatures, you will most likely see a single leopard, rather than several together unless you spot a mother and her cubs.

Female leopards give birth to two or three cubs at a time after a pregnancy of only 3 ½ months. These cubs can be born at any time of year, after which they spend their first two years staying close to their mother. 

Where to see wild leopards in Sri Lanka

One of the best places in the world to see wild Leopards is in the national parks of Sri Lanka. While leopards can be spotted on safari in Africa, the leopard population in Sri Lanka is the densest in the world. This is partially due to conservation efforts, but also because there are no longer any tigers in Sri Lanka- so the leopard is the top predator in the area. In Africa, by contrast, leopards can be hunted by lions and even hyenas. 

Book your Sri Lanka Safari

A safari in Sri Lanka allows you to try to spot a leopard in the wild- making this a very ethical encounter. While there can be a lot of traffic in these parks, the vehicles are restricted to staying on the road, and often to specific areas of the park, while the animals can roam freely, allowing them to move away from crowds of tourists as needed.

How to see Sri Lankan leopards in Yala National Park

The best place to see Leopards in Sri Lanka is on a safari in Yala National Park. You’ll need to pre-book a lodge in the nearby town of Tissamaharama or in the buffer zone around the park and arrive the evening before your safari, as the best time to see leopards is in the early morning hours. 

Yala National Park covers more than 950 square kilometres in the southeast part of Sri Lanka. It’s about a 5-hour drive from Colombo to reach the park, but an easy drive from either the jungle town of Ella or one of the beach towns on the South coast like Dikwella. A visit to Yala National Park makes a great addition to a longer Sri Lanka itinerary. 

You’ll need to arrange for both a driver and guide, and plan to arrive at the gates of Yala National Park before sunrise, when safari jeeps line up to enter the park. These quiet, early hours are the best time to spot leopards, followed by the later afternoon hours- after 4 pm. All vehicles must exit the park by sunset. 

Yala National Park is divided into 5 blocks- most tourist visit Block 1, where the most leopards are spotted. These leopards are generally unbothered by the presence of safari jeeps, though they are free to roam through all of the parks unrestricted.

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Hire an experienced guide

The guides in Yala National Park are very familiar with these animals- they can identify the individual on sight, and then report each sighting with location to aid in the tracking and conservation of the animals. You can see some of this data on the Yala Leopard Diary, which has detailed photos and family trees for the identified leopards, as well as maps of their sightings. 

Most guides are trained in tracking and will use these skills to attempt to locate a leopard during your safari, however, sightings are never guaranteed. Some visitors have gone on 2 or 3 safaris without spotting a leopard, while others see one on their first safari. It is recommended to either book a full-day safari or several half-day safaris to increase your odds of seeing a leopard. The best way to see a leopard is to hire an experienced guide, book several safaris, and be patient. 

Whether you spot a leopard or not, there are many exciting animals to see in Yala National Park including elephants, boars, deer, jackals, water buffalo, crocodiles, and even sloth bears (which can also be tricky to spot).

The best time to see leopards in Yala

The best time to see leopards, and other wild animals in Yala National Park is from February through July. This is the dry season, during this time animals come out of the grasses to visit watering holes, giving you a greater chance of spotting them.

Leopards (like most cats) do not like the rain, so on a rainy day, they made hide in caves or other protected locations, decreasing your chances of seeing one. However, these cats are actually strong swimmers and sometimes include fish in their diet. 

If you can’t make it to Yala National Park, there are other national parks in Sri Lanka where you can try to spot a Sri Lankan Leopard, including Wilpattu National Park, the largest national park in Sri Lanka, and Udawalawe National Park, although it is better known for herds of elephants, and leopard spottings are rare there.

The future of the leopard

Leopards are currently categorized as “threatened” on the IUCN Red List, which is one step up from “endangered”.

In unprotected areas, the number of wild leopards has been declining due to poaching- leopards are hunted for their skins, bones and teeth, as well as being killed by locals who feel their homes or livestock are being threatened.

While leopards are a threatened species and have been lost from over 75% of their original range, there are several organizations working to reverse their declining numbers. In an effort to increase awareness and conservation efforts, August 1st was declared “Sri Lankan Leopard Day” in 2021 by the Wildlife & Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka. One of the oldest non-governmental organizations in Sri Lanka, this society was responsible for the creation of many of the national parks which now protect the wildlife of Sri Lanka, including Yala National Park. 

The number of leopards in Yala National Park has been increasing, with reports of only 40 or so leopards a few years ago, increasing to an estimated 100-125 leopards in 2023. Throughout Sri Lanka, there are an estimated 800 leopards in the wild. Hopefully, with increased conservation, these numbers will continue to grow. 

Sri Lanka Leopard summary

The Sri Lankan leopard is a critically endangered species, with only around 800 individuals remaining in the wild. They are found in the dry forests of Sri Lanka and are known for their elusive nature.

There are a number of places where you can go to try and spot a Sri Lankan leopard, including Yala National Park, Wilpattu National Park, and Horton Plains National Park. However, it is important to be aware that leopards are wild animals, and there is no guarantee that you will see one.

If you are planning on going on a leopard safari, it is important to do your research and choose a reputable tour operator. You should also be prepared for the weather, which can be hot and humid in Sri Lanka.

Here are some tips for spotting a Sri Lankan leopard:

  • Go during the early morning or late afternoon, when the leopards are most active.
  • Look for signs of leopards, such as pugmarks, scat, and kills.
  • Be patient and keep your eyes peeled.

Spotting a Sri Lankan leopard is a truly unforgettable experience. If you are lucky enough to see one, you will be rewarded with a glimpse of one of the most elusive cats on the planet.

This wildlife encounter was experienced by Sharing the Wander

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