by Lal Anthonis
It was December 1983 when my friend Lakshman Siriwardhana, known as Lucky, and I arrived at the Talawila lodge in Wilpattu National Park just after noon and found the park ranger, his deputy and a few other officers in having lunch on the veranda of the lodge.
A conversation with them revealed that they were returning after investigating a leopard attack on a boy along the Marichkaddi-Puttalam road. The boy had been admitted to Puttalam Hospital with throat injuries. He succumbed to his injuries the following day.
Marichchakaddi is a Muslim village where one of the main means of subsistence is raising cattle. Occasionally, one or two of the village boys would herd a group of buffaloes to sell in Puttalam. They took an old jungle road that cuts through Wilpattu National Park for almost half the distance. They passed Pomparippu inside the park, and after crossing Kala Oya, they passed the villages of Vanathavillu and Karadipuval, then reached Puttalam.
In the park, another road branches off east from this road, and a mile away is Talawila and the lodge.
About three months before, along the Puttalam road, a leopard had suddenly pounced on one of the buffaloes in a herd, but before any harm came to it, the two boys, along with the rest of the herd, had succeeded in chasing the extinct big cat. This was repeated about a month later with similar results.
However, the current attack, which had taken place the day before at a point where the road forks towards Talawila, made a disastrous difference. The leopard had deliberately waited for the buffaloes to pass and went after one of the two boys. The leopard was chased away again, but the boy was seriously injured.
The Park Warden told me that he informed his headquarters in Colombo of the first two attacks. He asked me to speak to the wildlife director when I returned to Colombo and let him know the situation.
The Leopard’s Visit
Lucky and I fell asleep around 9 p.m. that night. I immediately fell into a deep sleep until I suddenly woke up. I looked at my watch which indicated 2:10. We were sleeping on the open veranda, and I was about to light a cigarette, when I heard a leopard scream. I thought it was about a mile on our left. The second call was about 20 seconds later and the sound was closer.
I woke up my friend and we felt more than we saw something moving outside the lodge in the dark night. Sitting on my bed, I saw that it was Gunadasa, our tracker.
He now joined us on the veranda, and the leopard called at regular intervals, while getting closer all the time.
It would have been an exciting episode under normal circumstances, but not when we knew a leopard had deliberately attacked a boy just the day before, just a mile away. I judged from the calls that were now very close that the leopard was taking a route that would take him about 50 yards behind the lodge.
I was right, as he called very close to the lodge but still on the left. The next call about 15 seconds later was just behind the lodge. Then came a silence that was absolute and complete even though not a cricket chirped. It was as if everything had suddenly gone into silent mode. The night was dark and we couldn’t even see our own hands. It was then that I noticed that the little lamp we had kept lit at the edge of the veranda had gone out.
As long as the leopard was calling we could pinpoint where it was, but now it could only be 10 feet away and we would be completely oblivious to its presence. Suddenly the whole atmosphere became very oppressive and incredibly tense. I strained my ears for the slightest noise and started to hear Lucky’s voice.
He suggested that we should move into one of the bedrooms and sleep there. He added that there was no way Gunadasa could go back to the staff quarters, and therefore he would have to use the other room, which he agreed to. Then the leopard called, far to our right. The next call was even further away. I sat up and let out a long sigh. A single cricket chirped, followed by another until the entire atmosphere was filled with their music.
We decided to stay on the veranda and Gunadasa returned to the staff quarters. On a whim, I looked at my watch and it was 2:50. It was the longest 40 minutes of my life.
Talawila was the location of another experience Lucky and I had in March 1983. Talawila can be reached by traveling from the Panikkar Villu lodge along the Makalanmaduwa road, which runs through the bush with sandy stretches in between. Suddenly the bush opens up and Talawila is on the right.
On the left, on an artificial ledge, is a two-story lodge with a large verandah, which is completely unprotected except for an ornamental fence one and a half feet high made of polished twigs. Talawila has been one of my favorite places not only on this island but also elsewhere in other countries I have been to.
Wilpattu National Park has now been closed for 15 years, and as I write these words, I can’t wait to go back.
That day in March 1983 we had arrived at the lodge in time for lunch and had enjoyed an interesting walk in the grounds. Later in the evening we had the usual sunset followed by dinner. We went to bed around 9:30 p.m. I still remember it was a moonlit night with a sky full of stars.
As we sat outside the lodge and sipped a drink, the gentle breeze occasionally brought a delicious scent to our nostrils. Obviously a forest, nocturnal flower, perhaps “born to blush invisible”, but its sweetness was certainly not wasted in the air at Wilpattu that night, as two of its great admirers were there to share it.
We slept in our camp beds placed on the veranda. Around 11pm we both woke up feeling rather suffocated. The moonlight was bright and we could see the other side of the villus as if it were daytime. It was an awe-inspiring sight with water sparkling like diamonds. We decided to pull our beds in front of the porch next to the low twig fence. Our heads almost touched that fence, and with the breeze playing over us, we fell into a deep sleep.
The footprints of a leopard
The next thing I remember is waking up early in the morning around 6:30. Lucky was already up and smoking a cigarette while admiring the villus. When Ratnayake, our tracker saw me get up, he approached me and said in Sinhalese: “Sir, the leopard was very close to your head last night”. I looked at him quizzically and asked him how he knew. He then said to me: “Come and see”.
Still rather carefree, I got up and rolled up my pareo, I followed Ratnayake outside the veranda. He pointed to the ground and a shiver ran through me when I saw those pug marks. I walked down the road that came from Panikkar Villu and pieced together what had happened the night before. The leopard had come by this route, and when he arrived at our lodge he would have seen the little lamp we had kept burning on the edge of the veranda.
Curiosity getting the better of him, he jumped on the ledge and reached the fence where he had stopped. I could decipher this because the pug marks were deep and clear in the sand. At this point, the leopard’s head and ours couldn’t be more than a foot apart. Having satisfied his curiosity, he continued along the edge of the veranda, then jumped off the ledge again onto the road and continued towards Makalanmaduwa. Stuffy or not, for the next five nights we kept our cots on the back porch.
(Excerpt from Jungle Journeys in Sri Lanka edited by CG Uragoda)