26 leopards, 16 blue whales: Roger Hooper’s ‘Ultimate Island Safari’

- www.ft.lk

World Wildlife Photographer Roger Hooper who was in Sri Lanka in October had one of his most amazing wild experiences while visiting Yala and Mirissa with the Nature Trails Team.

He saw no less than 26 leopards in just four days, asserting the fact that Sri Lanka has the highest density of leopard within a square kilometre anywhere in the world. His next indelible moment came in Mirissa when no less than 16 blue whales gave him a mid-sea spectacle that would surely have even the most experienced wildlife enthusiast gasp in awe.
Hooper, who was commended by former WWF-UK Chief Executive Robert Napier as producing images that “remind us of the beauty and fragility of forests and the creatures and people who depend on them for survival,” says his camera was in overdrive as he photographed some amazing scenes that he termed as totally unique.
“Every moment of seeing those leopards in Yala was memorable, but what has remained most in my mind is the panorama of the three leopard cubs playing on the rocks.”
Although having espied leopards all over the world in forest situations, Hooper explains that the rock vista was unique and different when it comes to background scenery.
Hooper, who has had his photographs featured in several WWF publications and in his books ‘Dotted Plains,’ ‘Spotted Game’ and ‘Art in the Wild,’ considers himself very fortunate to have seen blue whales at the tail end of the season.
“It was rainy and rough weather, but it was as if they were simply waiting for us. What a show they put on and I know for a fact that this is the first time I’ve seen so many blue whales on one trip.”
He enthuses that Sri Lanka is extremely privileged to not only have the largest land mammal but also the largest sea mammal as part of her ‘wild attractions,’ and the fact that these sightings are almost an year-round phenomenon becomes a definite advantage over other wildlife destinations.
Having been introduced to Chitral Jayatilake by his friend Wildlife Photographer Jonathan Scott, Hooper arrived in Sri Lanka straight after three scintillating weeks in the Mara.
“When you compare the Sri Lankan leopard to others, the difference is subtle. The animal might be slightly narrower in the face, but it’s not an obvious difference. In other countries, one is driving through forests and looking through trees to spot leopard; in Sri Lanka, we are looking at rocks and it is not uncommon to see them sprawled across, in full view. There are places in Africa and private gaming resorts which are similar to Yala, but really, nothing like our experience here in Sri Lanka. I had 26 sightings on 10 game drives, which is spectacular. In Africa, it is common to drive all day and not see any leopards.”
He presents another advantage. “It seems to me that most of the leopards are males who are normally shy. But here, they are more relaxed because they instinctively know that the people watching them cannot get off the road and therefore, are no threat. So they simply carry on what they are doing, either playing on the rocks just 50 meters away or simply relaxing.”
He cautions on overcrowding the park and states that the authorities have a hard task of finding the right balance in ensuring that people enjoy the wild but don’t scare the animals due to too many visitors. He also urges the streamlining of the entrance process into the park, as currently there’s too much bureaucracy and time delays.
Hooper, who founded Hooper’s Gallery in London which is now one of London’s largest commercial galleries promoting contemporary fine art photography in November 2003, was given a glimpse of Chaaya Wild and enthused that the combination of a wonderful park and a great place to stay is tremendous. He also commended the Nature Trails’ guides and naturalists whose idea of a home stay allowed him to experience the local culture.
“I’ve been most impressed with the knowledge and assistance I’ve received from the Nature Trails team. I went to Minneriya with Tharaka Koggala, whale watching with Kolitha from Chaaya Tranz and Yala with Rohan from Chaaya Wild and all were equally competent and extremely knowledgeable, while they made time outside the wilderness entertaining. I would say that they are up there with the best I’ve encountered.”

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