The Sri Lankan Leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), is the iconic apex predator of the island and a unique subspecies native to Sri Lanka. They are the most successful of the big cats with the ability to survive in any habitat, from scrub jungles, to rainforests to open savannahs. Feeding on a wide variety of prey species from spotted deer, sambhur and wild boar to smaller species such as land monitors, black naped hare and even village dogs they are the ultimate survivors.
Leopards prefer hunting at night, but are also active during dawn and dusk, and daytime hours. They rarely haul their kills into trees, which is likely due to the lack of competition from larger predators such as Lions, Hyenas and Tigers which pose a serious threat to leopards in Africa and India. As a result, Sri Lankan leopards are much bolder and within protected areas such as Yala and Wilpattu National parks where there is a relative abundance of prey, the big cats are bolder and are readily encountered during the day time. Since leopards are the apex predators they don't need to protect their prey, but do on occasion get into conflict with the Mugger Crocodile as well as a scavenging Sloth Bear and herds of Wild Boar.
The leopard hunts by silently stalking its prey until it is within striking distance where it unleashes a burst of speed to quickly pursue and pounce on its victim. The prey is usually dispatched with a single bite to the throat or through suffocation in the case of larger prey. There appears to be no particular breeding season for leopards with births scattered across months. A litter usually consists of 2-3 cubs. On a global context the leopard is classified as Near, however the subspecies Panthera Pardus Koitiya is classified as Endangered Threatened by the IUCN and are listed on CITES (Convention in the Trade In Endangered Species).
Seeing a Leopard in the wild, is one of the most rewarding experiences for an avid wildlife enthusiast or a photographer. Very elusive across Africa with the exception of high-end private concessions in South Africa and across India, Sri Lanka offers visitors the best opportunity to see these charismatic big cats in their natural habitat.
Yala Block I is believed to have the highest concentration of these big cats in the world and was described by veteran film maker and big cat expert Jonathan Scott as ‘God’s patch of land for leopards’. Wild game including Spotted Deer, Sambar, Buffalo and Wild Boar are abundant here, providing plenty of food for leopards. The scrub jungle and patches of grassland, provide the ideal terrain for hunting and the numerous man-made lakes dotted across the reserve provide a good supply of water year-round for the wildlife. Leopards can be seen sunning themselves at first light atop the rocky boulders or resting atop trees particularly during the heat of the day. Due to the abundance of prey and water, leopards in Yala have very small territories compared to other parts of the world, and at any given time, there are two to three sets of mothers with cubs which maybe encountered on a visit to Yala. The male leopards here are muscular and impressive in size and boldly patrol their territories in daylight hours which are often marked along the dirt roads used by the safari jeeps. During the dry season, a waterhole stakeout provides the best opportunity to watch the leopards come into the open and quench their thirst.
Closed for the better part of 30 years due to the civil war, the Wilpattu National Park which re-opened in 2010, is another top spot for watching the Sri Lankan Leopard in a very different terrain. Wilpattu comprises of dry evergreen forest amongst which the picturesque sand rimmed villus which are the park’s natural water sources are scattered throughout the jungle. One of the highlights during a visit to Wilpattu is to encounter a leopard resting in the white sands in the open by a villu.
The misty highlands of Sri Lanka is hardly a place one would imagine encountering a leopard. But despite this, historically, the highlands are where most of the island forests are covered, it was and where most of the wildlife animals roamed. With the onset of the British taking over the country, they cleared these vast forests to grow Coffee and subsequently Tea. One of the last remaining highland wilderness refuges is Horton Plains, National Park. Located over 2500 meters above sea level, this montane wilderness is set atop a high plateau and is one of Mother Nature’s most spectacular wonders. This land is one of the most sensitive and ecologically significant locations in the country – with a vast number of plants and animal life being endemic and found nowhere else in the world. The park was very popular for its scenic landscapes and walking trails. Subsequently was highly valued as a top birding destination to see some of the rare highland endemic species.In the last few years, through countless visits and patience, this too has produced some unforgettable leopard encounters. The kings of this domain, these predators are found in the deep dense cloud forests and on the fringes of the open plains which are the main landscapes of this habitat. Feeding primarily on Sambhur the largest species of deer in Sri Lanka these cats seem to have a few physiological differences from their lowland cousins. The Horton Plains Leopards seem to be much larger in physical size and their faces wider with shorter muzzle areas giving them a stouter and wider look. A study carried out by a scientific team consisting of Dr Enoka Kudavidanage in 2020 has identified 23 adult leopards found in the park.
Despite good chances of encountering leopards, which by nature are elusive animals, it is recommended to factor in a minimum of 3-4 half-day game drives in order to get the best opportunities to view and photograph these iconic predators.