Sri Lanka is that kind of place we call ‘same same but different’. Everything feels familiar: the lush paddy fields swaying in the afternoon summer breeze; the good-natured grins that locals flash without a hint of self-consciousness; the neat line of colourful autorickshaws along the roads; and the mad whir of the safari jeep as drivers rush to overtake others just to get a hundred metres ahead.

Yet everything feels off, ever so slightly. For a start, the roads are super smooth, with not a single pothole in sight. And the drivers who whiz purposefully, my own included, slow down immediately with a sheepish look on their faces, as if guided by an invisible hand. In this land of gentle people, cutting lanes is as unacceptable a concept as speaking loudly or frowning at visitors.

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A river in Yala, among dense forest cover
A river in Yala, among dense forest cover

The forests of Sri Lanka have the highest concentration of leopards in the world, and sighting them is a matter of near certainty. Add to it the fact that in this habitat, leopards are the apex predators, unlike in Indian forests where tigers rule, forcing leopards to play down their prowess. I have read all this before, and am repeating it mentally right now for reassurance.

Our local guide-driver Sumanth is a bundle of optimism, brandishing his mobile phone and swearing solemnly to show us leopards. Not just many leopards in Yala, he tells us comfortingly, but they are also used to human movement. And so, we enter the gates of Yala National Park for our first safari just before 3 pm, eyes peeled and cameras at the ready.

The first sighting of the day is a gang of wild pigs, mummy and daddy herding a dozen little ones across the mud tracks. The babies freeze and move, freeze and move, clearly not yet fully trained in forest road rules, before disappearing from sight. As we peer into the bushes behind them, we catch sight of a couple of elephants frolicking in the mud, tearing up bamboo shoots for a mid-afternoon snack.

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The ubiquitous Asian elephant
The ubiquitous Asian elephant

Although the Sri Lankan elephant has been declared an endangered species by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), their numbers have slowly been increasing over the last few years. And Yala, with its semi-arid climate, presents a perfect home for these mammoths. As we watch in fascination, they continue to play a leisurely pachyderm game of catch between the trees, in the process scaring away the painted storks from the nearby pond.

Sumanth then gets a call on his mobile phone and we suddenly move ahead at great speed, leaving a cloud of red dust in our wake. A few hundred metres ahead, there is a long line of jeeps. A couple of local guides are standing by the side of the mud track pointing into the thickets, tourists from the jeeps craning their necks and torsos. Our pulse quickens. This can mean only one thing.

Each jeep gets a few seconds to look and take photos before moving on and letting the next one take its place, the entire process smoothly and efficiently managed by the locals. Just before it is our turn—when we are, say, two jeeps shy of the spot—one of the guides walks up to brief us on where to look and what to see. Turns out, it is of no help at all. All my husband and I can see are the brown trees and the even browner rocks. The entire territory is dry and sepia-toned, and if there is indeed a leopard sleeping behind that large boulder amid those tall trees, it would take a mini miracle to spot it.

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A purple sunbird takes a bite
A purple sunbird takes a bite
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The green bee-eater, widespread in the park
The green bee-eater, widespread in the park

The rest of the safari goes by in a blur of bird sightings—dozens of blue-tailed bee-eaters, photogenic Asian paradise flycatchers, glorious yellow orioles, migratory grey herons and purple herons, and a couple of those quintessential sunbathers, oriental darters. As the sun begins to go down and the bright light of the day begins to fade, the chatter of birds breaks the silence in the forest. Not surprising, given that Yala National Park has over 215 species of birds, seven of which are endemic to Sri Lanka.

As it happens, Sumanth is not particularly tuned into the alluring sound of birdsong in the air, or into the promising lead of leopard pugmarks down on the soil. His sole tracking device is his mobile phone, with which he communicates with his loyal companions on other jeeps.

Given my fascination with leopards—dozens of trips into Indian forests have offered up exhilarating tiger sightings—I am determined to go all out in search of these shy and elusive creatures. But on this safari and the one the next morning, for which we leave the hotel at 5 am, there is no purposeful attempt to stalk them.

We just drive up and down the same set of muddy roads, exchanging disappointed looks with other tourists in the same jeeps over and over again, till it is time to leave the forest. I learn later that Sumanth himself is an embodiment of the mess around the Yala safari scene, with hundreds of untrained locals just given a jeep and sent out into the forests by rich owners.

For such a small country, Sri Lanka has no less than 26 designated national parks. Yala is the second largest and most popular, for two reasons: proximity to the buzzing beach zone of the south and the known density of wildlife, especially leopards. Although there are no definite census records, estimates of leopard numbers in just Block 1 range from 45 to 60. However, as my experience shows, there is an urgent need to regularise safari activity and establish training procedures for guides and drivers.

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Hordes of tourists set out every day in search of the leopard
Hordes of tourists set out every day in search of the leopard

Having said that, Yala is one of the most spectacular national parks I have ever been to. Spread over 1,200 sq km, it is an attractive mix of landscapes: a combination of lush thickets, dry grasslands, freshwater ponds and brackish lagoons. Many of the inner roads are lined with bare and desolate trees, giving the entire landscape an eerie touch in the soft glow of the fading evening light.

Most fascinating for me is the fact that this is a coastal forest, the Indian Ocean bordering it on one side. There is a local legend that the animals here are so tuned into nature that during the tsunami, they all went into a safe hiding place well before it hit. And when the massive flooding stopped and the waters finally receded, there was hardly any damage to wildlife detected.

Back at the Jet Wing Hotel in Yala, I am trying to drown my disappointment in a bowl of Sri Lankan dal curry and spicy coconut sambol to go with the fluffy idiyappam (string hoppers). That is when I chance upon the hotel naturalist Chamara Amarasinghe, and wrangle a trip with him into the forest. This afternoon drive would be my last safari at Yala on this trip, and even if leopards fail to make an appearance, I want to see more of this forest than the five main roads we have been crisscrossing earlier.

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The Hanuman langur with its watchful eye
The Hanuman langur with its watchful eye

Chamara comes bearing two pairs of binoculars, several chilled water bottles and a shining ray of hope. All along the way, he carries on a conversation, but keeps his eyes and ears open, often identifying the names of birds from their calls and pointing out fresh pugmarks on the mud tracks. And we know that finally we are in the presence of someone who really knows and understands the forest.

We have turned off the main road as soon as we are inside the forest gates, and I am seeing new areas and landscapes, and not a single tourist vehicle. With Chamara at our side, we also discover the other fauna that had perhaps been right under our noses all along—the wild buffaloes with their curved horns (formidable but lacking the majesty of the Indian gaur); a family of elephants, the mother shielding the baby from our intrusive cameras; frisky herds of spotted deer; the ruddy and Indian brown mongoose; and a black-naped hare who poses prettily for a few startled seconds.

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The Sri Lankan leopard, just like its Indian counterpart, is a shy animal
The Sri Lankan leopard, just like its Indian counterpart, is a shy animal

These sightings are joyous, but Chamara can see the “where is the leopard” question in our eyes, even though we know he is trying his best. As we turn a sharp corner, driving slowly to make sure we miss nothing, a blurry figure jumps across the road ahead and merges into the shrubbery. “Leopard!” we gasp in unison. A cub. Immediately, another one bounds along the same route, following the little one into its hiding place. The mother.

We pull up at the side of the road and stare into the area where the two leopards had headed just a moment ago. There is no further movement; either this is one extremely quiet family or they have long vanished into the dense scrubs. Either way, we are ecstatic.

“See, I told you to keep the faith,” says Chamara with a touch of smugness. Yes, often that is all it takes inside a forest. Faith. And perseverance.

The Information

Getting There
Fly into Colombo from any of the major Indian cities (return fares from approx. 20,000) and hire a taxi to Yala, a 300km/6hrs drive on excellent roads. Visa is on arrival for Indians in Sri Lanka.

When to Visit
Yala National Park is open through the year except for six weeks during peak rainy season—between early September and mid-October. The best time for leopard sightings is in the hot summer months from April to July. See yalasrilanka.lk for more information.

Where to Stay
Jet Wing Yala (jetwinghotels.com/jetwingyala) has an excellent location, right by the beach. It is only a 20mins drive from the forest gate. Tariffs from approx. 8,000 with breakfast (safaris extra).