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by Lal Anthony

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 officials having lunch on the lodge’s veranda .

Speaking to them revealed that they were returning after investigating a leopard attack on a boy along the Marichchkaddi-Puttalam road. The boy was taken to Puttalam Hospital with injuries to his neck. He succumbed to his injuries the next day.

Marichchakaddi is a Muslim village where cattle breeding is one of the main sources of income. From time to time one or two of the village boys would herd a group of buffalo that were being sold in Puttalam. They took an old jungle road that goes through Wilpattu National Park almost half the way. Within the park they passed Pomparippu and after wading through Kala Oya they passed the villages of Vanathawillu and Karadipuval and then reached Puttalam.

In the park another road branches off this road to the east and a mile away is Talawila and the lodge.

killer leopard

About three months earlier, along the Puttalam Strait, a leopard had suddenly pounced on one of the buffalo calves in a herd, but before anything could happen to him, the two cubs, along with the rest of the herd, had managed to chase the big cat off. This was repeated about a month later with similar results.

However, the current attack, which took place the day before at a point where the road to Talawila branches off, had a devastating difference. The leopard had deliberately waited until the buffalo had passed and moved towards one of the two cubs. The leopard was chased away again, but the boy was badly injured.

The park ranger told me he informed his headquarters in Colombo about the first two attacks. He urged me to speak to the Director of Wildlife upon my return to Colombo and update him on the situation.

Leopard’s visit

Lucky and I went to bed around 9pm that night. I immediately fell into a deep sleep until I suddenly woke up. I looked at my watch, it read 2:10 am. We slept on the open porch and I was about to light a cigarette when I heard a leopard call. I thought it was about a mile to our left. The second call came about 20 seconds later and the audio was closer.

I woke my friend and we felt more than saw movement in the pitch black night outside the cabin. As I sat down on my bed, I saw that it was Gunadasa, our tracker.

He now joined us on the porch, and the leopard called at regular intervals, getting closer and closer.

This would have been an exciting episode under normal circumstances, but not when we knew that just the day before a leopard had deliberately attacked a boy just a mile away. From the calls, now very close, I deduced that the leopard was taking a route that would take him about 50 meters behind the lodge.

I was right as he called very close to the lodge but still left. The next call about 15 seconds later was just behind the lodge. Then there was an absolute and utter silence when not even a cricket chirped. It seemed like everything suddenly went into silent mode. The night was pitch black and we couldn’t even see our own hands. Then I noticed that the little lamp we had lit on the edge of the porch had gone out.

As long as the leopard was calling we could pinpoint its whereabouts, but now it could be as little as 3 meters away and we wouldn’t even notice its presence. Suddenly the whole atmosphere became very oppressive and incredibly tense. I strained my ears to catch the slightest sound and started hearing Lucky’s voice.

He suggested we move into one of the rooms and sleep there. He added that there was no way Gunadasa could return to the staff quarters, so he should use the other room, which he agreed. Then the leopard cried far away to our right. The next call was even further away. I sat down and took a deep breath. A single cricket chirped, followed by another until the whole atmosphere was filled with their music.

We decided to stay on the porch and Gunadasa returned to the staff quarters. I immediately looked at my watch and it was 2:50 am. It was the longest 40 minutes of my life.

Talawila Hut

Talawila was the scene of another experience Lucky and I had in March 1983. Talawila can be reached by driving from Panikkar Villu Lodge along the road to Makalanmaduwa, which runs through bushland with strips of sand in between. Suddenly the bush opens up and on the right is Talawila.

On the left, perched on a man-made ledge, is a one-story cabin with a large porch, completely unprotected save for a foot-and-a-half-high decorative fence of polished branches. Talawila was one of my favorite places not only on this island but also in other countries I have been to.

Wilpattu National Park has now been closed for 15 years and as I write these words I long to go there again.

On this day in March 1983 we arrived at the lodge in time for lunch and enjoyed an interesting drive in the park. Later that evening we had the usual sundowner followed by dinner. We went to bed around 9.30pm. I still remember it was a bright moonlit night with a sky full of stars.

While we sat outside in front of the lodge and enjoyed a drink, the gentle breeze occasionally brought a lovely scent to our nostrils. Obviously a forest, a night-blooming flower, perhaps “born to blush unseen,” but her sweetness definitely didn’t go to waste that night in Wilpattu, for two of her great admirers were there to share.

We slept in our cots on the porch. Around 11pm we both woke up feeling pretty stuffy. The moonlight was brilliant and we could see the other side of the villu as if it were daylight. It was a magnificent sight with the water in it sparkling like diamonds. We decided to put our beds in front of the porch next to the low branch fence. Our heads almost touched that fence, and as the wind played around us, we fell into a deep sleep.

The footprints of a leopard

The next thing I remember was waking up early in the morning around 6:30am. Lucky was already up and smoking a cigarette while admiring the villi. When Ratnayake, our tracker, saw me getting up, he came up to me and said in Sinhala, “Sir, the leopard was very close to your head last night”. I looked at him questioningly and asked him how he knew that. Then he said: “Come and see it”.

Still quite unconcerned, I got up, hitched up my sarong, and followed Ratnayake out of the porch. He pointed to the ground and I got cold when I saw those pug tracks. I walked down the road coming from Panikkar Villu and reconstructed what happened the night before. The leopard had come along this road, and when he got to our hut he would have seen the little lamp we had lit on a low flame at the edge of the porch.

Curiosity got the better of him, he jumped up the ledge and got right to the fence where he had stopped. I could make out that because the pug tracks were deep and clear in the sand. At this point, the leopard’s head and ours could not be more than a foot apart. After satisfying his curiosity, he continued along the edge of the porch, then jumped back down the ledge onto the street and continued on his way towards Makalanmaduwa. Stuffy or not, we left our cots in the back of the porch for the next five nights.

(Closed)

(Excerpt from Jungle Journeys in Sri Lanka edited by CG Uragoda)

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