Written by Staff Writer
The park is at the heart of Sri Lanka’s Central Coast, a lush tropical paradise that attracts millions of tourists every year. There are 11 leopards that roam here and, given the availability of food and prey, there have been more than 1,200 reports of tiger sightings over the past year.
In fact, this is the number of tiger sightings in Sri Lanka for the last year. These facts and figures have prompted the national park service to launch a major conservation drive.
We met with expert tour operator Tak Vatirasekara , who in 2007 became one of the first people to get permission to set up a fully-fledged leopard spotting program in Sri Lanka. Since then he has led more than 100 tiger spotting programs in Sri Lanka and over 30 leopard sighting programs in the country.
Where to see them
You can spot leopards along the coastal zone.
We followed Tak into one of the many road-side leopard spotting locations he recommends. He put us in a moving motor-bike taxi, and off we went.
The forest is well-populated.
We saw 3 leopards for the first 30 minutes of the drive — with more spotting happening on our way — and we also saw a mob capuchin monkey about halfway.
Long hair is a more common feature of leopards than head or tail markings. Tak says their face can grow longer — and at leasier ages — because leopards start to lose their hair as their young age. Once a leopard gets older it is lighter colored.
There are also an increasing number of sightings in the highland zone, which encompasses parts of the north-central and south-western regions of the country. Tak says leopards are moving into these parts from the lowland areas.
The highland zone is home to beautiful beaches too.
These places should be of particular interest for conservationists looking to save leopards.
So when can you see them?
Generally, it’s better to spot them when the leopards are more active. The site Dos Pansayakanakapitiya in the south-central region is a good example. In this park, the leopards prefer to roam near river banks. A moat is kept between the forest and people at the park, and its gates remain open until the rain falls, Tak explains.
Luan more commonly prefers to be around men and cars and even pedestrians.
Another place to look out for leopards is Nissanhera, also located in the central region, where Tak says the leopards are usually in a trough of water where they cross between rice paddies and forests.
The Namuhaligoda National Park in the north-central region is open to the public, but at night only. Tak says it is more visible at dawn and dusk, and if people are willing to make some distance away from the animals it can be seen from the outside. In the western peninsula, in the southern sub-region, the leopards are more easily spotted during sunrise and sunset.
Do you have to leave the park when leopards are spotted?
Tak says there are strict rules about when leopards are allowed to be spotted in national parks.
“If the leopards have been around for 6-12 months, they are first considered a local tiger,” he explains. “If the leopards’ numbers are less than what we’re used to seeing, then if the leopards are given an international status and designated as our national tiger, then their numbers should be increased.”
In order to get a local tiger permit, by then leopards would have to be on the look out for 7-12 months. The catch is that the permit is granted for just one year.
During Rakvatha leopards, the peak of the lion season, Patiya International has facilities at the Pandawaharis Kalamela Tiger Base for its local prides and cubs.
Out of around 1,200 sightings of leopards in 2018, 250 (35%) were white tigers
In 2018, around 1,200 sightings of leopards were reported. Tak estimates that 250 sightings were white tigers. The white tiger breed is said to have made a comeback.