February 2012


Night Stalkers in Yala
February 2012




Leopards climb rocky outcrops at sunset to survey their territory

The leopard, nocturnal by nature, has managed to keep its behaviour largely concealed under the cover of night. However, during the making of a leopard documentary focusing on the night-time behaviour of the top predator of the Sri Lankan jungles, the most astonishing visuals, never captured before, shed light on the secretive lives of Yala's leopards.

Words and Photography | Chitral Jayatilake

In May 2010 I received an inquiry from London on Yala's leopards. I soon began corresponding with a young producer at Ammonite, UK, on plans of making a leopard documentary at Yala aiming to capture their behaviour at night. I invited Tom to visit Sri Lanka in early June for a recce and drove him personally to Yala National Park. En route to Yala, we met the Director General - DWC (Department of Wildlife Conservation) and presented our plans of filming these elusive cats at night. We arrived at our hotel late that night and headed off to showcase Yala's leopards to Tom early next morning. The three-day recce was a great success, with many cats seen. The experiment of staying out at the park one night, after closing time, with the kind assistance of the DWC ended in success having spotted several large males. Tom was convinced that Yala was indeed the place to make his movie designed for Nat Geo Wild.

Four weeks of meticulous planning followed; custom-designed filming doors fabricated in Tissa for the jeeps, seats removed to house two thermal cameras and modified desktop computers placed on board the jeeps. The Ammonite Crew was led by Martin Dohrn, award winning cameraman and producer, accompanied by Thomas Stephens.

This was to be the first instance in Sri Lanka where the filming jeep would move in total darkness, driven through IR vision

The crew took a day and a half to kit up two handpicked jeeps, while the support crew was trained in the use of infra red vision goggles when driving at night. This was to be the first instance in Sri Lanka where the filming jeep would move in total darkness, driven through IR vision, while three state-of-the-art seventh generation night vision cameras including thermal, infrared and starlight vision would record Yala's nights and its prince of darkness.

Day 1 - We were all set for our first night of filming. Kalu, our faithful driver carefully selected for the filming jeep, needed reassurance in driving through night vision. I took the wheel of the Tata myself; driving up to the main gate was easy, negotiating the jeep through the narrow gates certainly tested my night vision driving skills.

We headed straight up towards the Yala junction when the spotter jeep picked up one of the ‘Suduwelimulla Cubs' ahead. I gently manoeuvred the jeep into position and spotted the cub seated on the drain by the road, relaxed though watching the jeep.

Thirty minutes later, to our total surprise, the cub stood up, stretched and began walking straight up to the filming jeep. Tom whispered to me, "Back up, he's too close..." and I did, looking through night vision goggles; another first - reversing a jeep through Infra Red vision.

to our total surprise, the cub stood up, stretched and began walking straight up to the filming jeep

A couple of days later, while Kalu mastered the art of driving with goggles, I was with Ajith on the spotter jeep, at the Thalgasmankada turn-off when the engine died on us. A quick radio message had the Tata pulling up and a manual start had us on our way, while I gave clear instructions to Ajith not to turn off the ignition till we reached the gates.

Just as we approached the circular water hole at ‘Medapara,' two leopards were seated on the road and the ensuing excitement made Ajith forget my instructions. Engine switched off, with no battery power, we watched the leopards mate twice while Martin filmed the sequence.

Riding on the external infrared beams, I modified a handycam that could pick up infrared light and made some low resolution stills, which was exciting. A tired male suddenly stood up and began walking towards the jeep in a spot where tall trees blocked the little moonlight filtering through. When we picked up the position of the male, it was 10 feet from the jeep and closing in, and my driver had more than goose bumps; he was almost panicking that we were in serious trouble.

Twelve days of filming and leopards each night... Martin being the perfectionist wanted more than just breathtaking portraits and posing leopards on the roads.

The hunt was on for more behaviour and we did find just that - 
a fresh kill one morning at the Uraniya road side, twenty metres into the plains under a ‘Maliththan tree,' the filming jeep called it in. It was a four-hour stay before replenishments of a few drinks arrived from the hotel. A snack lunch and gear ready, we waited while the evening rush of jeeps was over, 
where more than 20 vehicles were clamouring to see the carcass with no leopard in sight.

It was on the stroke of 1900 hrs that we spotted a female leopard approaching from the far side

Patience and time was on our side. By half past five in the evening, most jeeps had left and it was time for a tired Martin to leave the site, but his parting words rang in my mind, "Chitral, I want the leopard to come, and when he begins feeding, buffaloes must chase him and a bear will appear and perhaps crocs from the Uraniya Lake will follow." I shot back, "Let me see whether the script will come true," and we waited.

It was on the stroke of 1900 hrs that we spotted a female leopard approaching from the far side; she hurried towards the kill and began feeding, ripping through the skin and opening the carcass. By quarter past seven that evening, a herd of buffalo appeared from the lake and began threatening the cat, soon chasing it up the ‘Maliththan' tree.

Many attempts by the leopard to reclaim the carcass were thwarted by the buffalo, which numbered 26 by this time, while they had more reinforcements in the shape of wild boar arriving at the scene. The infrared cameras picked up a single croc approaching the kill, which didn't bother the buffalo, but they would have shown no such tolerance with the leopard.

It appeared through my infrared goggles that the buffalo seemed to be treating the carcass as if it was one of their own. Whether they were simply sympathetic towards the deer or mistakenly believed it was a buffalo, we could never tell, but the reaction of 26 of them in unison, keeping a hungry leopard from feeding for over two hours, was a remarkable observation of behaviour that showed both the courage and determination of the herbivores.

The Yala leopards’ cover of darkness had been broken through the best available technology

While all this unfolded quite too far for my handycam, I sat on the filming door, well outside the shelter of the jeep with my feet dangling out, watching the drama that almost resembled Martin's script for the evening. Suddenly Tom broke the silence calling, "Bear on the road" and we could see Yala's black ghost, a Sloth bear, ambling along the Uraniya Road, and walking around the jeep, which made me pull back my feet hurriedly.

Three hours after it all began, the buffalo seemed to give up holding the leopard hostage up the tree and they withdrew gradually, leaving the cat to enjoy what was left of his dinner. I remember breaking this amazing sequence to Martin on how his imaginary script almost unfolded to perfection with only the bear avoiding being on camera that night.

In the last week of filming, I convinced Martin that the second phase ought to be in September during the height of the drought and not during January. We took a break in August before the same crew sans Martin was back in September for the second half.

Mark took up the daylight HD camera while Martin was off to Kenya on a hyena shoot. Gearing up was much less tedious, having done the drill before. Duct tape glazed the jeeps, almost laminating every surface for jerks, cushioning and reducing reflection. We hit the jungles after making the jeep as invisible as we could. I left the team, hoping to rejoin them a week later.

Two days into filming, I received a much-awaited call. It was the news we were all dreaming of, "We captured a kill sequence; the leopard is still feeding on a monkey," was the short message. I texted Martin in Africa and a text message fired back, "You made my day."

I soon joined the crew for the final week of filming. The fourth set of ‘Rukwila' cubs had been sighted by this time and I set my gear each morning at the best vantage point, shooting the threesome playing actively each day.

With over 400 images shot of cubs at play, I took a break from ‘Rukwila' and joined the rest of the crew for the following days.

47 days of filming at night had its rewards, 106 leopard sightings in 46 nights, eleven sloth bears, five rusty spotted cats, fourteen cobras and seven pythons along with countless elephants arriving to water at Gonagala and Heenwewa tanks. The awesome experience of driving at night observing Yala's nights come alive was more than we could imagine. Whether it was a blessing combined with meticulous planning or just luck to have avoided any injuries or accidents we'll never know. It was however a childhood dream fulfilled; making a film on Yala's leopards and particularly at night!

I felt as though on top of the world when we drove into the ‘Buttuwa' plains one September night for a final still image of the crew that completed this amazing task. A 30-second long exposure, we stood motionless until Tom said he was happy with the symbolic image that marked the completion of Night Stalkers.

Fourteen months later, the completed documentary aired worldwide and has had tremendous reviews, on capturing the never-before-seen behaviour of the stealthiest cat of them all. The Yala leopards' cover of darkness had been broken through 
the best available technology and a team of men determined to observe, document and share the secret lives of leopards at night.

 

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    A close encounter

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    A curious cub just before the break of dawn

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    Leopard cub seen relaxing on a Palu tree at Yala

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    Leopards are great climbers, here a male comes down a tree using his powerful hind legs

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    A young tusker greeting the film crew just before switching to night vision

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    Male – named Kotigala 1, dominant atop his territory

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    Rukwila Cubs after sunset, at the top of their domain, wild and free

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    Collard scops owl – blessed with built in night vision, these birds hunt purely at night

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    Female leopard relaxed at night watching the filming jeep

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    Drivers maneuvering jeeps using Infra Red vision goggles

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    Leopards during the night shoot, undisturbed by Infrared light

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