The Vision

The leopards of Yala and Wilpattu website is a project and a vision that began over 10 years ago! Leopard Trails Founder/Managing Director Radheesh Sellamuttu first observed this technique to identify individual leopards during one of his initial visits to the Londolozi Private Game Reserve in South Africa. It was at a leopard sighting with safari guide Mike Sutherland and Tracker "Life" that Mike pulled out a booklet and described the technique, while the leopards continued to mate in close proximity and at regular intervals. What immediately struck Radheesh’s attention was the ease of this method; previous methodologies he was exposed to seemed cumbersome and far from ‘guest-friendly. Here was a quick and easy method that could be used in the field and explained to guests on a safari within minutes. The method focuses on the spot pattern ratio. This pattern, such as 4:3, identifies the leopard through the number of spots on the left and right sides of its snout. The remainder of the name comes from its territory or a location where it may have been observed. Other unique features and patterns were also used to supplement this technique. Radheesh soon envisioned a plan to utilize this technique in Yala and Wilpattu National Park. It helped that the team at Londolozi and many other lodges in the Sabi Sands were ever ready to share their knowledge and pass on their learnings. In the years that followed, Londolozi and Leopard Trails would take this relationship further through a safari guide exchange program.

We already knew that Sri Lanka’s dry zone jungles were teeming with a high density of leopards. Back in 2010, we were acquainted with a few regularly sighted individuals with clear distinctive markings.

But were we observing the same leopards time and time again? Where did male cubs disperse after leaving their mothers at maturity? Do older female mothers have a fixed territory? Do dominant male leopards get pushed into small pockets of wilderness at the end of their reign? Could it be possible to observe the same leopard at the extreme ends of the reserve? There were many unanswered questions!

On Radheesh’s return to Sri Lanka, he began searching through thousands of leopard images in our internal records and sorting them into individuals, with the vision of sharing the data in the public domain. The team of guides at Leopard Trails were trained to identify individuals and soon they all started contributing images to a meticulously managed database. The initial iteration resulted in 40 individuals of Yala block 1 being identified and named and that number continues to grow. As time went on, it was possible to make family trees or lineages, but never showing paternity. Today the team at Leopard Trails thrives on a culture of storytelling around the Leopards of Yala and Wilpattu. No evening safari ends without the guiding team sharing their sightings with each other in the guides' quarters and information is entered into a centralized system. Individual leopards are now instantly recognized at sightings and guests are taught how to identify Individuals. Around the campfire, guides recite stories involving individual character traits, lineages, and unique sightings. The saga is constantly unfolding and evolving.

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Importance Of Identifying Individuals

Behavioral studies that focus on the differences between individual leopards rely on the recognition of individuals and the ability to follow them through time. Variation in natural markings has been valuable to field biologists and others for the identification of individual animals. Knowing where to look and how to identify an animal is very helpful as it allows us to monitor the movement of individuals within a population and better understand the behavior of that animal. It also helps to understand the life history of an animal and to determine other ecological data such as abundance, range or territory, and the structure of populations which are the essential elements for the study, conservation, and protection of a species.

Reliable methods for the identification of individual animals such as photographic identification, based on distinguishable patterns or unique shapes is an effective technique already used for many species.

Photo-identification is therefore a useful tool to gain more knowledge on their population demographics and beneficial for appropriate management and their conservation.

Yala National Park is one of the most visited national parks in Sri Lanka and is divided into 5 Blocks and Block 1 which covers over 14,000 hectares is the most frequently traversed. Yala and Wilpattu's main draw is the leopard and it is said to be one of the best places in the world to view leopards. It has been theorized that Yala and Wilpattu may have the highest density of leopards in the world. Leopards can blend into their environment incredibly well, primarily because of their instantly recognizable spotted coat. Despite being instantly recognizable the spots actually make it easier for leopards to blend in, because a disrupted pattern is harder to see than a blank pattern. The patterning breaks up the shape of the body and allows the leopard to almost melt invisibly into any habitat. The majority of a leopard’s body is covered by black spots that are arranged together to form rosettes. A leopard’s body is covered with a combination of rosettes and spots. The pattern of rosettes and spots on each animal is much like a fingerprint on a human; every leopard has their own distinct and unique set of markings. Hence, using these unique patterns to identify each individual leopard is a reliable method that is widely accepted.

Going Forward

Leopard Trails will continue to document the behavior of leopards using photography and videography to expand this publicly available database showing territorial, mating, and feeding behavior as well as the family lineages of the leopards of Yala and Wilpattu. This is made possible due to the passionate efforts of our team who manage the website and also due to all the contributing photographers that we liaise with to expand the database. We encourage those in both tourism and wildlife conservation to use this database and engage with us. Please email [email protected] to contribute and engage.

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