Observing & Photographing Wildlife

One of the key factors that can increase your chances of a good sighting in any forest is to ‘look and listen’ to the forest. Drive at moderate speed and keep looking for signs of movement. When you encounter common animals such as Spotted Deer, Grey Langurs and Indian Peafowl, observe them for any change in behaviour. Keep your voices low and the conversation to a minimum. As you move forward, concentrate on observing the forest. As with most things in life there are many interesting things to observe in a forest if you take the time to look.

Most animals in national parks are generally tolerant of vehicles and will not associate danger with the sound and shape of them so long as you maintain a reasonable distance. However they are quite wary of the human figure and voice, which can be heard from a considerable distance. Thus one should give any animal adequate space; always be quiet and stay inside the vehicle during any sighting.

Even though the park contains many habitat types, 73% of Wilpattu is covered with dense forest. Therefore unlike in parks with open fields and low scrub, observing animals at Wilpattu can sometimes be quite a challenge. One needs to persevere and be patient.

When it comes to tracking leopards, besides looking for pugmarks (foot prints) on the sandy roads, listening to the alarm calls of other animals will increase the probability of a sighting. The “kak kako kak” alarm call of the Grey Langur is a definite indication of the presence of a leopard nearby. The Spotted Deer will often look in the direction where a leopard is detected, stamp its front feet on the ground, one at a time, raise its short tail upright while barking out its high pitched alarm call. The Sambar will do the same and give out its explosive, bellowing alarm call, often heard at night. The harsh bark of the Barking Deer is another alarm call to listen to if your interest is in leopards. The frequently repeated high pitched alarm call of the Giant Squirrel or the Indian Palm Squirrel is often made when a leopard is on the move. The alarm call of the Ceylon Junglefowl, though not specific, is also of value and if the bird is making this call from a tree, it is definitely worthwhile checking the surroundings carefully. The commonly seen White-rumped Shama and the Black-naped Monarch will also raise alarm calls when our top predator is on the move.

Most animals prefer to visit secluded pools of water surrounded by forest rather than to walk across an open area to quench their thirst during the day. Thus it is important that you cautiously approach and carefully observe such pools during your game drive.  During the dry season when most waterholes are reduced to small pools, a variety of animals and birds will visit them constantly.

Once an animal is spotted, whether it is a leopard, bear or bird, it is extremely important that you give it space and do not move too close. If the animal is stationary, it is prudent to turn off the engine of your vehicle, which will permit you and others to enjoy the sighting for a longer period of time.

While photography is a fascinating hobby, it is important to ensure that you do not cause any undue disturbance to the animals in order to capture a photograph. It should never be a case of getting the photograph at any cost. The true challenge is to capture your photos with minimum or no disturbance to your subjects. Stepping out of the vehicle, other than at park bungalows, is illegal within the park except at designated locations such as Kumbuk Wila, Nelum Wila and Kudiramale Point. Utmost care should be observed when photographing a bird’s nest with eggs to ensure that the parents will not abandon the same due to your actions. Further, please refrain from using the flash with your camera as it causes unacceptable levels of disturbance to the animals. When an animal is spotted, even though you may be keen to inform the others in the vehicle and the driver, it is not necessary to do so at the top of your voice, which can cause the animal to dart into the forest.

The fact that you possess a camera phone, a point and shoot camera or a small camcorder is no excuse for you to get too close to any animal causing undue disturbance. You will be better off to keep your distance and enjoy the sighting.  More often than not turning off the engine and staying calm will increase the possibility of animals such as Leopards and Bear approaching your vehicle, offering you a better opportunity of capturing a worthwhile photo. Do your best to minimize the impact your actions can have on animals’ natural behavior. It is unacceptable if a Leopard has to lose out on a hunt or the Deer is deprived of reaching water due to your actions. Particularly during the dry season (July – September), please do not block the path of any animal that is coming to water in order to capture your photos. Be considerate, as animals often walk for many miles to reach water during the dry season.

Please note that most small cameras and camera phones, which although may not be adequate for wildlife photography, are quite capable of producing good quality scenery shots. In my view a good camera with at least a 300mm lens will be adequate, in most instances for a variety of wildlife photographs. However fixed lenses with even greater reach would be of immense value for bird photography. While a good zoom lens will offer a wider range of photography there can be a drop in quality when capturing images beyond a certain range. (Example a 100 x 400 lens may offer good quality images only up to about 300)

Low light is often a challenge for photography at Wilpattu. Naturally good quality lenses and cameras where faster shutter speeds can be maintained without having to compromise quality will be of value. However, despite what is advocated by the manufacturers of expensive photographic equipment that such equipment will lead to capturing excellent photographs, it is often the skills of the photographer behind the camera that result in photos that capture attention. Knowledge in changing the settings of your camera to suit the situation, understanding of the direction and the availability of light, being conscious of the background and the ability to anticipate the behaviour of wild animals are the keys to capturing pleasing wildlife photographs.

When photographing any animal remember that the effect is greatly enhanced if you can capture the animal making eye contact with you. The “alert look” of any animal, whether it is prey or predator, adds character to the photograph. It is also important to be mindful of the angle at which the photograph is taken and to have adequate depth of field when the subject is close. Photos where you are closer to the eye level of your subject would result in more pleasing photos than where you are photographing at a steep angle.

The statement that you should only ‘leave your footprints and take back only photographs’ is absolutely relevant. Be responsible to ensure that you or anyone travelling with you will not litter the park. Please carry a garbage bag and inform all the members in your party to drop stoppers, wrappers, empty cans, plastic bottles etc. into this bag. When occupying a bungalow please make sure to take back everything which is not biodegradable that was brought into the park, the day you leave.

Last but not least, it is of great concern that the number of “road kills” (animals run over by vehicles) of birds such as nightjars and other small animals is on the increase even inside the park. Please be considerate and drive at moderate speed even when leaving the park particularly after your evening round, which will enable you to avoid running over animals. Do not hesitate to express your displeasure to your driver if he is driving too fast within the park.