“Seeing a leopard in its natural habitat had always been one of my dreams, and thanks to my dear childhood friend Sadhina, that’s now checked off my bucket list. Although be pre-warned, once you’ve seen one leopard in the wild, you’re hooked for life! If only everyone were as lucky to have Sadhina for a friend! Not only does she have amazing knowledge of the topography of the jungle, but her respect for the wildlife is truly admirable. Where everyone else goes to see this amazingly beautiful animal, the leopards of Lanka seems to know when their friend is in their midst. It was a delightful surprise to find ‘Y,’ a big cat with magnificent markings lounging behind our jeep, watching over his friend Sadhina. The leopards of Lanka clearly know they have a lifelong friend and an ally in the island’s Leopards Whisperer!”
This was told to me by a mutual friend called Dr. Maneshka Eliathamby, whose comment prompted us to name this beautiful lady, the ‘Leopard Whisperer!’
Sadhina’s love for animals is a renowned fact; at school she would be petting the stray cats that roamed about the premise. Another fact which caught our attention was her striking good looks, her chic fashion sense, her ability to choreograph our dance performances, her wit and her paintings. Another memory which is etched in my mind about her is her setting a school record for the javelin throw, the very first time she participated in the event with zero practice!
After leaving school, we lost touch, but years later we were able to reconnect on FB, and we gradually got a glimpse into her very being. Here was someone who could see into the windows of the very soul of an animal. The little bee-eaters, the monkeys, the elusive sloth-bears and the magnificent leopards are given an identity in her pictures.
It is not just another random picture of a bear or a leopard that we see in her pictures, but an animal we can be drawn to, feel for and gaze at for hours.
The call of the wild
“The love for nature was instilled in me by my father, who used to bundle me up from the time I was seven years old and take me to the jungles of Sri Lanka. I marveled at nature and languished in the serene feel of it,” said she at a brief tête-à-tête. Thereafter, we planned a trip to Wilpattu, with the hope of joining Sadhina Abeysuriya on one of her jaunts to the deep verdant jungle of the North West.
What I noticed was her attention to detail and how methodical she was, her organizational skills were spot on. That quality would have been honed by spending so much time in the thick of the jungle, where the element of surprise pervades the air and one has to be prepared for anything.
As we drove along, she remained as serene as the jungle itself. She relished in the feel of seeing the animals and birds being themselves; it is almost as if she coaxes them to shed their aloofness and revel in their true skin.
I am reckoning that they feel a kindred spirit in her. They remain aloof with others, but with her they let their hair or in this case their fur down (excuse the pun).
As we traversed the arid roads stopping at villus to view the crocodiles, birds, eagles and that aquatic pachyderm who could not seem to get enough of water on himself, so much so that part of its trunk had faded into a dull pink.
Abiding by the law of the jungle
She is very strict about obeying rules and voiced her concern for the damage done to wildlife by people, who think they are doing a favour by feeding them or those who would get off the vehicles without realizing the danger that lurks around them, despite the many posters depicting the danger caused by such irresponsible behavior.
An ardent lover of the wild
She respects nature and nature in turn revels in the thought of being photographed by one of their lovers. It seems as though the animals are posing solely for her, and would assume that she gets paid by them for a personal photo-shoot.
The perfect match
Sadhi as she is endearingly known to her friends, has met her match in the nature aficionado and wildlife enthusiast, Major Raajiv Wanigasekera. A nature buff and a prolific philanthropist who is eager to appease the down trodden; be it human or animal. Dressed in camouflage gear, the two of them are the ideal crusaders on a mission to save and restore. They love to explore the many beautiful landscapes scouring the island for nature’s limitless bounties, which give them immeasurable joy.
Beauty from ashes
Whilst delving into the depths of Sadhina’s soul, one encounters a page which she herself would like to erase, but one which she had to face with stark reality; the death of her beloved father. He met his untimely death at Wilpattu and my first question was directed at her courage, “you are brave to have gone back ..!” She confessed that it took her six years to take that initial step to go back to Wilpattu. The searing pain in her soul was replaced by a strong determination to continue her quest for inner peace, which she has found in nature. Sadhina bares her soul in the words below;
“October 2012. 4.00 am on a Friday morning. My bags are packed and I’m ready to go! Destination – the Wilpattu National Park. ETA – 6.30am!
“I arrived at the park entrance right on time, as planned.
Everything looks different; not the way it looked six years ago, but yet so beautiful!
“BAM! My foot hits the brakes at the entrance. I turn the jeep around, but then tell myself, no, I have to do this. Tears flowing as the pouring rain; numb, my body frozen. It was six years ago that I last visited Wilpattu. Now, I am here to visit the place where my father was last seen, and where he said goodbye to the World!
“It was raining the proverbial cats and dogs. The jeep was waiting for me to take me to a place that was once a battlefield. It took us about an hour to get to the place where tragedy struck.
Still in shock, trembling, scared, the rain lashed down on me, its ice-cold pellets searing my skin like fire. I was freezing and the rain felt so hard and so thick that I could barely see what was in front of me. It felt as if a thousand knives were piercing my skin. The villus were beautifully carpeted with flowers. I remember my father used to tell me that peacocks wait for the rain. When they see the dark clouds gathering, they open their beautiful feathers and dance enchantingly in the rain.
“The jeep stopped. The driver and tracker look at me. “Miss, this is the place.” I took a deep breath and looked around. The only thing remaining was a part of a vehicle. I was crying uncontrollably. I know it was breaking the rules, but I had to get down. My feet needed to touch the ground. It felt as if my whole life was falling apart. My heart pounded like never before. I got back in the jeep and stayed there for a long time, until I suddenly felt calm, and at ease. I felt his presence near me. He was holding me, keeping me warm. Then I knew that he was “home”! From that day on, going to Wilpattu has been ‘Going Home’!”
In the following text, she describes her first encounter with the majestic leopard Prince.
My handsome prince
“The next few days in Wilpattu were filled with beauty and adventure. The following morning, I started early. The rain had stopped and I felt as if a large weight had been removed from off my shoulders.
“Driving down to Pannikar Villu, I was surrounded by swarms of butterflies. I felt like a princess being guarded and escorted to meet my prince! They were not only around the jeep, but inside as well. This time my tears were of happiness – it was all so beautiful. Most of all, I felt the presence of my Dad with me.
“Nearing Pannikar Villu, and there in the distance is Prince/Natta, that beautiful spotted one. From that day on, he was my Prince! My Guard of Honour, the butterflies, had led me to him. He looked so smart sitting up on that tree where he could see the whole villu. The villu, too, looked very beautiful with a host of purple flowers everywhere, and painted stork, teal, deer, peacocks, and wild boar dotted all around it. It probably looked very different to Prince – a rich buffet awaiting his pleasure!
“As always, I started taking a lot of photographs – of the villu and, of course, of Prince. I am certain he loves to be photographed. He just sits there and poses! Prince and his villu, it all looked so beautiful – just like a postcard. Eventually, he came down from the tree and started walking towards the jeep, stopping every second to check if he could catch something to eat. I realized that he was hungry and looking to make a kill. He climbed a very small tree right next to the jeep, in pursuit of a small lizard that had run for his life up it. So Prince had to follow. As the saying goes, ‘what goes up must come down’! Prince could not maintain his balance on the small boughs and he fell. The jeep, however, was close to him, so he hung on to the side to stay his fall. That was my moment of magic! We looked at each other for a couple of seconds – up close and personal! I was on cloud nine! The driver and tracker were scared at his proximity and worried that he would attack me. The tracker took out his knife in case Prince sprang at me. I quickly said “Epa” (No!). By that time, Prince was on the ground and unhurriedly walking away.
That second, when we gazed into each other’s eyes, was a moment that I will remember for the rest of my life. Maybe he sensed that I would not hurt him in any way. Every time I see him now, he looks smarter and braver than he was before. He has always been a brave cat, never bothered by that around him, or who was watching.”
The best things in life
“My relationship with the jungle has not changed since I was seven years old. That was when my father started taking me to the jungle and showed me the best things in life, and the best places to be, always encouraging me to protect it and its ways, and to keep it in its pristine state. To him goes all the credit.
I photograph nature and wild animals with passion. It is fuelled by my love for them. They are wild and unpredictable and demand a lot of patience and flexibility. I let them dictate the pace and the rhythm, and it has led me to some beautiful and unexpected situations.
“I have always enjoyed visiting the wilderness. Thanks to my father, my passion for wildlife and nature has never waned. From the day I picked up my first camera, a Canon G10, everything has clicked for me. I intend to continue to do whatever I can to protect the wilderness. After all, I will always be going home!”
Her story is one of courage and resilience at the boulders life has thrown at her. She could have wallowed, or allowed her pain to engulf her and she would have been excused for it, but Sadhina has forged ahead like a warrior and vowed to make a change for the betterment of nature, and leave a legacy of love rather than hate and be the voice for her majestic friends in the wild.