Yala National Park, Sri Lanka. It boasts one of the highest leopard densities on earth.
Jeeps scurrying around the place looking to produce what the tourists crave. One of them is driven by Sunny, who’s been chasing leopards in Yala for eight years and is pretty good at it. In the back of his jeep today: two French tourists, Serge and Sylvie, who have never seen a cat beyond the domestic variety, clawing at strings and bugging out to catnip. Another jeep is driven by Stanley, who has run tours for over a decade. In the back of his rugged vehicle sit two Americans: Ken and Jack.
Stanley has been rushing around all afternoon chasing tips that come in on his cell, but few have materialized. Jack and Ken have seen no leopard, though the elephants and buffalo, the kingfishers and painted storks have been lovely. Still, Stanley follows every new lead: a male cat crossing a dirt road here, a female returning to her tree with prey there. But the timing is off, and they just never manage to actually see one.
It’s getting late, but Stanley chases one last tip, speeding to reach a dam where a male leopard has been spotted. They arrive to a spectacle of nine jeeps, all joshing for position. But he is nowhere to be seen. They pull up next to Sunny’s jeep, wondering what’s up, and Serge quickly let’s them know, flashing, on his small point and shoot camera, with a gloating look mind you, a picture he just took: an almost full frame shot of a leopard, walking across the road.
But it’s gone now, into the brush. They missed it again.
Nighttime at the lodge. Lapwings screeching, bats circling. An incredible Sri Lankan buffet of string hoppers, fish curry, roti and sambol.
Turns out the French couple, and Ken and Jack are staying at the same place, and sitting at the same table.
‘No leopard, hey?’ Serge makes conversation with Ken, while Jack and Sylvie go for seconds.
‘No,’ Ken says softly. ‘Unfortunately, not today. Great elephants though.’
‘We had three. Check this one out.’ Serge pulls out the camera.
‘Yes, you showed me earlier, I believe.’
‘I got a bunch,’ Serge says, clicking through more photos. ‘He was really posing, but this one’s the best.’
‘Yes,’ Ken says, studying the photo. ‘Pity it isn’t quite full frame, but decent light and composition. You might have stopped down for better depth of field,’ he adds, ‘but it’s a pretty nice shot. I guess you were shooting on automatic.’
‘Yeah, whatever, I think I got it,’ Serge says, while his face says: fuck you jealous American. ‘Pity you didn’t see it. It was awesome.’
‘Nature’s all timing and patience. I guess, I wasn’t there this time, and you were. Thanks for sharing,’ Ken adds getting up. ‘I simply must have some more of that sambol. Addicted to spice.’
Jack is just getting back. ‘You were showing pictures to Ken? Of your leopard today?’
‘Yes. The one your jeep didn’t see.’
‘Did Ken give you any advice?’
‘Advice? He didn’t even have a camera.’
‘His gear is coming tomorrow. It was delayed in Delhi. This was just a fun relaxing safari I suggested before we start work tomorrow.’
‘Ken is going to shoot leopards and sloth bears in Yala for the next three weeks. Camp inside, shoot from hides, etc. It’s his third time here. He’s one of the world’s best best.’
‘Nature photographers? You’re joking.’
‘Specializes in big cats. He was the first person to ever photograph mating snow leopards in Afghanistan, and he had that famous shot of jaguars hunting tapirs in Brazil. He practically lived with a pack of lion in the Ngorongoro crater for six weeks in 2004 documenting cannibalism and hyena predation during the drought. He’s a bit of a legend, really.’
Sylvie comes back with a plate of food. ‘Did you show the man the great picture you took?’ she asks Serge, after smiling at Jack. ‘Of the leopard?’
‘Yes,’ Serge answers, looking towards the buffet. ‘I did.’
By EM Vireo