Yale forest reserve in Sri Lanka attracts a lot of tourists and I had it marked on my travel plans. My first school excursion to the Zoo and the circus during my childhood fascinated me. My first comic book about a man and wildlife was about Tarzan and this fiction was close to my understanding of reality. My first movie about capturing animals and the human interaction with elephants was Hatari and that inspired adventure. The bond between man and lions as well as the concern for protecting wildlife was first inspired when I saw the movie “Born Free”. As I grew I teamed up with my friends to hunt partridges, wild hares and often took to fishing. Maturity taught me to love the other creatures of the world and to respect their lives. Animals in the zoo’s and circuses made me sad and so did cages.
I learned to express love, care and concern and I tried to interact with them without endangering their freedom. My spirit felt very happy whenever I made friends with wild birds and animals, even for a fleeting moment.Therefore, whenever I had an opportunity to visit the wild I would not miss to take it. Sri Lanka had many forest reserves and the most popular ones among them was a forest reserve in Undawale and another at Yale. Yale was famous for spotting the leopard.
The rains in Srilanka had failed that year and October was dry. Most of the reserves were closed. I was told that the reserve in Yale would be open for a couple more days. I rushed to the town of Tissa which was closest to Yale and had many jungle lodges, hotels and restaurants. The jungle lodges were way expensive and bounced off my budget. Settling in one of the hotels we booked a four-wheel jeep and were told to be ready by 5 am the next morning.
We drove to Yale which took about half of an hour and waited for our turn to enter the reserve. The ticket into the reserve for foreigners was exorbitant but that did not deter us or the others who had queued up in their Jeeps. The gates opened at six and a mad rush ensued. Jeeps took off into different jungle routes which were mud trails.
Our scout-guide-driver was an experienced young chap and instead of following the mud road trail, took a diversion following a dried stream bed. He occasionally stopped, for about fifteen minutes, to wait near waterholes, expecting to sight the leopard, but finding no signs of birds being disturbed from their bushes. We moved on. Enjoying the sunrise light up the arid forest, we drove along mud trails to come across dancing peacocks, partridges, country fowls, wood pigeons, tailor birds, thrushes, stork, crane, colourful tiny wild birds and many water birds.
We foraging mongoose, hares hopping away into the bushes, monkeys resting atop trees, large monitor lizards, spotted deer, water buffalo, marsh alligators, fox and herds of wild boars. We were lucky to see a sloth bear sharpen its claws on a tree trunk and hide among the bush, but our search for the elusive leopard was getting on our nerves.
The sun was getting hotter by the hour and our scout did not let up on his search. “Tenacity and patience is the key to success,” he said, as he kept driving through the jungle for more than two hours. Finally, he stopped near fragments of a foundation which we were told was once a luxury jungle lodge. It was on the seashore which was beside a hat-shaped mountain. A small memorial read that, this was the spot where the Tsunami had struck thrice within an hour, on the 25th of December 2005, shattering the lodges and drowning all the lodgers on that fateful day.
Having flexed our legs we continued our search for the elusive animal when suddenly the driver asked us to sit tight and sped through bushes and trails towards a rock formation to stop near another Jeep who had tipped our driver about spotting the leopard. We were told that leopards hunt during the night and laze during the day and this one was lying down under the shade of another rock. He pointed us were to look and warned us not to make any noise or disturb it. We looked hard and found the leopard sleeping on its side in the shade between two rocks. The thrill of seeing the animal-free and unmindful of our presence was immense and we just kept on looking at it for more than ten minutes, hoping for more adventure.
Many other groups in their jeeps charged in and vied with each other for vantage points. The scouts kept cautioning the visitors not to get down from the vehicles, not be loud or disturbing. I realized that the word of sighting the leopard had spread like wildfire and the forest track was getting packed by the vehicles. The sleeping leopard was photographed by cameras with zoom lenses as well as mobile phones.
I had today had my fill of my childhood thrill. The forest Safari a bit of Hatari, Tarzan and Born free. It was worth the money and time spent. The drive back to the hotel was one of the most content of rides I had ever experienced in my life.
My world was beautiful. It began with a beautiful sunrise over a parched jungle but upon one which was filled with birds and animals enjoying the world that was their home. I had kept my space and they theirs, which proved good to both of us. Munching on the sandwich and reminiscing on the sequence of the day, it dawned upon me that I had witnessed, the creation as narrated in the book of Genesis. This jungle could be paradise. The natural world belongs to all and I decided that I will not threaten the environment but protect and share it in common, with the love as well as utmost care that it deserves. Will you?