Climb Every Mountain

Yesterday evening we hauled the kit up to a high spot to get some wide shots of the stunning Yala National Park.

Some of the Sri Lankan team; Lucksman Bandara (park warden), Ajit Kumara (driver), Kalu Murugiesh (driver), Thilanka Ranatunga (naturalist)

Ammonite cameramen; Tom Stephens, Howard Bourne, Martin Dohrn

Leopard spotting


Buffalo Bath Water

Last night we were filming a young female leopard as she approached a small waterhole. Water is starting to become sparse as the drought takes hold and waterholes are become more dispersed here in the south east of Sri Lanka. Due to their strong territoriality leopards regularly drink from their local waterhole, so you can imagine the surprise of our young female when she discovered a huge water buffalo blissfully lying in the muddy remains of her drinking pool.

Far from being deterred she silently approached the buffalo and hid behind a tree until darkness fell. Then as the light failed she crept around behind him and started drinking. All we could see was the buffalo and the leopards tail raised in the air like a flag as she precariously balanced herself to drink from the waterhole. After a few moments the buffalo's eyes shot open as he realised that there was an intrusion into his bath water. Stomping out of the bath and dripping with ooze he chased the leopard around the waterhole and into a tree. Almost blind in the dark the buffalo then paraded around the waterhole, seemingly looking for the leopard before squelching off into the forest. The leopard meanwhile, coolly jumped out of the tree and resumed her drink in peace.

We are returning to the waterhole tonight to see if the leopard returns!


Thermal image of Buffalo and leopard: copyright ammonite


Leopard Spotting

Leopards are famous for their mysterious elusive nature. Obvious when sighted but extremely hard to pick out of the forest due to their dappled camouflage that blends so seamlessly into their surroundings. By day they could be concealed on the forest floor or high up in a tree enjoying a catnap, it’s hard to know where to look. Our challenge is even greater, finding these secretive cats at night and discovering exactly what they are getting up to.

So, with two starlight cameras, one thermal, two spotting vehicles, four night scopes and a small stadiums worth of infrared lights we set out every night to search for them. It may sound excessive but so far we’ve been successful in filming a leopard every night. This would be almost unheard of in Africa where leopards are far less common or dense in their distribution. But this isn’t Africa, we are in one of Asia’s most abundant wildlife areas and filming nocturnal behaviour new to television.

It’s whistling peacocks and chital deer alarm calls that we are listening out for in the forest night. The team are adapting to a whole new ecosystem and discovering leopards are far from predictable. But so far we’ve fortunate in finding them and with another night beckoning let’s hope that our luck continues!



Jungle Driving

It’s 35 degrees with sweltering humidity and we’re deep in the Sri Lankan jungle. Our car is completely blacked out with hardly any visible lights other than the glow of our camera monitors. Infra red lights illuminate the road for our driver as we bounce down the forest track, scanning bushes and clearings for the most elusive of cats. It’s all very covert sounding but I fear our extremely loud car engine may give our presence away. We’re riding in a Ta Ta, one of India’s largest car manufacturers but sadly for us, it’s also the loudest.

Our standard covert approach is something like – Brum Brum Brum, “What’s that!?”, Brum Brum Brum, “STOP THE CAR!!”, screeeetch! “Turn Right”, Brum Brum Brum, “STOP THERE!”, BRUM! “Shhhhhhhhhhh!”

Not exactly a subtle entrance.

Despite the engine noise we’re nearly a week into our trip and every night is providing new insights into this amazing place. We’re looking for leopards as part of a new night series recently commissioned by National Geographic. With the new series comes a new member of the night team, our very own Howard Bourne, cameraman, engineer, kit guru and photographer. This is Howard’s first night assignment but it’s going to be a busy year filming so expect to see more of him and the night car over the next few months.

I’m afraid you may have to wait till next year to see if we’re successful in filming these stunning big cats but check back here for updates.

Tom Stephens


First Day

The component arrived - just in time - but the drama didn't abate. Testing the camera when we were supposed to be ready and packed, we breathed a collective sigh of relief when we got the last bag loaded into the car with just one missing wallet between us.

We were barely late getting on the road and as Roger sped us airportward it was looking good right up until the junction before Heathrow where we joined a massive tailback and spent hours at a standstill, there was a panickey trolley dash for Check-in and Customs and the spiral of solder in my bag really did look quite a lot like a bomb fuse in the x-ray machine.

We have now arrived at Yala and today is the day we set up the vehicles; special filming cages and rails have been fitted to a Tata and a Jeep and we are getting busy with cardboard, foam and gaffer tape constructing super-lo-tech housings for our super-hi-tech equipment


All Packed And Ready To Go

Visas? - check

Vaccinations? - check

Filming Permits? - check

Flights booked and paid for? - check

Equipment? - 20 cases already waiting in Columbo

Starlight Camera? - ????????

It's been a buttock-clenching month, the final component needed to mend our Starlight Camera was sent out to us a couple of weeks ago - and got lost in transit, every day since, we've eagerly awaited it's arrival.

With the filming dates fixed to coincide with favorable moons and the best chance of good weather we need to go tomorrow.

As I write this, a Camera Boy is running back from Europe clutching a new part - will he get it back here and in the camera by tomorrow morning?