The Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera Pardus Kotiya) is a subspecies of the leopard found in Africa, known to be the Panthera Pardus. It is the smallest of the of the ‘Big Cats’ weighing in at between 29-56 kg depending on the gender. The Yala National Park is internationally famed for its leopard population and the relative ease of viewing these animals renowned for elusiveness.
In Sri Lanka, leopards are the top predator, in other countries their position is taken by tigers and lions, which are considerably bigger and more powerful. Therefore, in Sri Lankan ecosystems, they are a keystone species at the top of the food chain and an indicator of the health of the ecosystem they depend on.
The Sri Lankan leopard does have a very different look and attitude compared to its African counterparts. They generally have a much broader head and thicker set, their eyes often appear a little cross-eyed when viewed head on. They retain the same coat colour: a tawny yellow with dark rosettes that characterize the deep velvety coat and allow them to hide away amongst the dapple shade of the forest and the undergrowth.
Leopards are experts in the art of ambush: their preferred habitat of wooded areas and shrub lets them remain camouflaged and unnoticed until the last moment. As they do not have any other major competitors in terms of predators, Sri Lankan leopards can afford to spend more time on the ground and may be one of the reasons why they are more visible on safari than those in other parts of the world. They too are found in the highlands, outside the national parks, utilizing areas planted with eucalyptus and even home gardens. Anywhere where there is sufficient ground cover and plentiful prey, are likely areas for leopards to be found. They were discovered breeding for instance in the areas surrounding the city of Kandy although the evidence of them is very rarely seen.
The sloth bear (Melursus ursinus) is also found in the National Parks of Sri Lanka, again being subspecies of those found in the Indian sub-continent. It is an endangered species and for much of the year rarely seen. However, during the months of June and July when various fruits of the forest (especially ‘Palu’) are in season, the sloth bear ventures out during the day.
The sloth bear is an unpredictable animal and mainly nocturnal. They have long, black/brown shaggy coats and interestingly were the main inspiration for the bear ‘Bahlu’ found in the Jungle Book!. The Sri Lankan bear has a less shaggy coat than those found in the Indian subcontinent. Their sinhalese name is ‘walaha’. They too have gained a reputation for being hostile to anyone straying into their territory, including humans, which is why one should be mindful of the fact to give them their space.