Jungle Lore- The Maneating Leopards of Kumana

Originally demarcated as Yala East National Park, Kumana was declared a national park with its own borders in 1969. Kumana is well known for birdwatching and its wonderful variety of birds and nesting colonies. Leopard, bear, smaller mammals, reptiles, and elephant also roam the park. Off the coastline of Kumana good fishing grounds prevail and attract keen sportsmen with rod and reel. The Bagura plains within Kumana NP is the setting for many a tale from hunters of old, who hunted leopard and bear or merely shot animals ‘for sport’. Kumana was also one place where animals were trapped for the Dehiwela Zoo (in the mid to late 1950’s). The ‘trappers’ travelled by jeep and mainly by bullock cart, carrying nets and camping necessities. Every year in July/August Kumana plays ‘host’ to the Pada Yatra, a most amazing foot pilgrimage undertaken by Kataragama devotees as they trek many miles along the east coast, eventually reaching Kumana and then walking through the Kumana jungles and Yala NP to Kataragama.

The mystique of Kumana goes far deeper than the wild attractions. The Bambaragastalawa ruins, Bowatagala cave complex, Lenama, Maha Lenama and the Kudumbigala monastic sanctuary (just outside the park) hold some of the most mysterious history, legends, and facts. Cave paintings, rock inscriptions and small caves (some now the lair of wild beasts) add to the adventure that is Kumana. Its remoteness is also its protector.

Interlinked legends endure in Kumana National Park providing additional stimulation to the singular dimension of mere animal sightings. One to these legends is the possibility of a brown bear or another variety of bear – now extinct.

One theory is that these ‘beasts’ were no more than a brown bear, the legendary Rathu Walaha or Rahu Walaha now extinct in Sri Lanka. What is interesting is; that Hugh Neville, an extraordinary Englishman in the Ceylon Civil Service, who ‘broke the story’ of the Nittaewo in 1886 as the editor of the Tabrobanian- a Dravidian Journal of Oriental Studies also writes (October 1885) on a brown bear in Ceylon. Neville refers to a Dr Gray who reclassified a specimen bear skull from Ceylon in the Paris Museum and concluded it was a type of Tibetan Bear or Malayan Bear or a bear from greater Asia (in short the inference is; there was another species of bear in Ceylon other than the Sri Lanka Sloth Bear). Neville says the specimen was initially taken alive in ‘Trincomali’ (Trincomalee). More interestingly, Neville states “The brown bear of Ceylon is now found, but very rarely, in the wild district lying between the Kumbukkan River and the Menik Ganga in S.E. Ceylon. I have not heard of it in the Trincomali, Mullaitivu or Mannar districts.” Neville also notes “it is spoken of under one name Rahu Walas”   a description offered by Neville of a bear that chased two of his guides is; a bear smaller than the sloth bear with a thick brown streak of fur on its back and a yellowish colouring on the chest/belly. Interestingly a close friend recalls a sighting in the Vanni jungles by another close friend, whose jungle craft, credibility and experience is beyond reproach, of a ‘brown bear type animal’ at a water hole in daylight. The hunter was unable to get off a shot before the animal went into thick scrub. This account was related about 40 years ago.

The associated legends Maha Lenama Veddah Tribe and the decimation of those Veddahs by marauding legendary ‘Lenama Leopards’ – an instrument of punishment of an offended Kataragama gods.

The general legend as to the Lenama Leopards is that they were much bigger and bolder and did not necessarily flee at the sight or confrontation with man. One game ranger explaining the size of a Lenama leopard’s head to me, whilst using his hands to demonstrate the size, said their heads are broader and bigger. A most interesting feature of these legendary leopards is that they allegedly had a stripe or two along the neck. The Ven Anandasiri relates (Twenty Five Years in the Jungle) an encounter with a leopard outside his cave in the Kudumbigala Hermitage “The face of a leopard I saw. Yet, he did not look fierce. I saw stripes on either side of his neck. The claws on its paws were quite large”. An unrelated incident (to the Lenama legend), but nevertheless interesting in terms of leopard colour variants with unusual markings is a record from Hugh Neville in the Tabrobanian (December 1885) of an encounter he had with a leopard, which lasted about half an hour on the Kandy road in January 1884, in broad daylight. He observes the leopard that was threatening to spring upon his horse “stood higher than any I have seen before and was remarkably thin. The tail was of the full length and unusually long. While the fur was of a dark tawny orange with no appearance of spots” He also comments on the white underbelly fur and cites another encounter of a similar shaped leopard, with no spots, with a Major Hubback.

More interesting is Neville’s mention of a “rat divi or red leopard from S.E. Ceylon” and the only reason he discounted the leopard he saw on the Kandy road as the “red leopard” is because accounts related to him by other Englishmen of sightings/encounters of the red leopard all stated the tail was shorter. The lack of scientific proof relegates these great tales and possibilities to the category of legend and speculation. The legend of the Veddahs decimated has a degree of plausibility too as a well-known tracker from Kumana National Park who claimed Veddah origin was in Kumana until the late 1960’s. Many of the people referenced in this article have met Yapath Hamy and no one seems to refute the claim that it was his ancestors that were the victims of the Lenama Leopards. It is also, generally accepted, by many, that he was the boy who escaped from Veddah Rock to Helawa. His descendants are still around.

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