Photo courtesy of Rukshan Jayewardene

Although Sri Lanka is a richly biodiverse island and is accordingly famed for its wildlife abundance, its varied eco-systems spread throughout the island, two land mammals in particular have achieved an iconic status. They are the elephant and the leopard. Of the two, elephants by far are the only animals associated with the island and its long cultural history. Leopards on the other hand have only recently attained popularity and is possibly the most sought after wild animal by both foreign visitors as well as locals who visit wilderness areas. The leopards late popularity is due to its elusive nature, its unwarranted reputation as a dangerous animal and the paucity of knowledge regarding leopards until the 21st century.

Sri Lankan elephants (Elephas maximus maximus) is a sub species of the Asian Elephant and is distinct from the Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus). The island of Sri Lanka has been famous for its elephants since pre-Christian times and ancient kingdoms on the island captured and exported them to far off lands as well as used them as traction animals in agriculture, heavy construction and warfare.

Throughout history as well as during the island’s 450 years of colonial occupation by the Portuguese, Dutch and the British, elephants were caught from the wild and domesticated both for export and local use in the lumber extraction industry as well as in religious processions and pageantry. Although elephants cannot be captured from the wild and have been strictly protected, many fall victims to guns and explosives (jaw bombs) deployed by some farmers as well as illegal electrocution. In the recent past, a spate of kidnappings of baby elephants from the wild have been in the news as the confiscated elephants and the smuggling ring leaders have been embroiled in court cases filed by conservationists and animal rights activists. It is also sad to note that there has been no breeding of captive elephants to supply the small demand for elephants used in pageantry and religious festivals which by far is the lesser of the two evils of captivity, the other being illegal capture from the wild, which has always been seen as a ‘backburner’ option by those who stand to gain financially from such an enterprise. The Sri Lankan state has been slow to realise the sentient nature of elephants, the cruelty and suffering they have to endure in captivity, to say nothing of the loss of all freedom.  

The Human-Elephant conflict in Sri Lanka has grown with each passing year, with 318 elephant deaths last year and 212 human deaths. (in 2019 however 407 elephants died at the hand of humans, the drop in 2020 can be explained due to Covid regulations restricting human activity and movement, but the general trend has been a steady increase). Forest clearance, land grabbing, rapid land conversion from wilderness to agriculture, ill planned settlements, illicit felling, illicit gemming activities and haphazardly erected elephant control fences that block movement, all of which contribute annually towards exacerbating the human elephant conflict and making the coexistence of humans and elephants near impossible in legally unprotected lands where the majority of wild elephants still live. A rare positive development relating to the conservation of wild elephants on the island was cabinet approval  last month for a Managed Elephant Reserve (M.E.R) in the southern district of Hambantota. An M.E.R is  reservation for in-situ elephants where other uses are allowed in a zoned and controlled manner. However, it was a sit down hunger strike by rural farmers who were affected by elephant depredations that took place on the roadside for months and made the nightly news, that pushed the government to approve this MER that was first proposed more than 10 years ago. The advice and insistence of conservation scientists and experts over the years had been ignored by successive governments until the ground realities of the situation caught up with the incumbent government.

Although conservation of the wild elephants of Sri Lanka (who number a few thousand) is popular with the majority of the populace not only because it is a huge tourist draw to the island, and is linked to many jobs and livelihoods, Sri Lankans do have an ancient tie to the species and the Buddhist ethic of Ahimsa (or non-harming) still plays a role in people’s attitudes towards elephants.

As for the leopard, it is certainly the lesser known animal but in the last 10 to 15 years is seeing a meteoric rise in popularity. With popularity comes a host of attendant problems such as overcrowding of parks where leopards can be easily seen in as well as speeding and reckless driving, competition and jostling at sightings, high levels of noise and other disturbances such as close approach. National Parks like Yala and to a lesser extent Wilpattu and Horton Plains (where leopards can be seen with a little effort) have become victims of their own popularity. In Yala especially, a prime destination for leopard enthusiasts and photographers , visitor pressure has become counter productive both in terms of waning popularity with foreign tourists who experience the chaos and adverse impacts on wildlife.

The pandemic year of 2020 has seen a dramatic drop in visitors to the parks( as expected) which in turn has allowed for a bouncing back of the quality, frequency and duration of leopard sightings, all of which screams out  the need for a better regulated and managed, wildlife tourism sector. Towards this goal, both the government (the Department of Wildlife Conservation and the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority) and the corporates involved with  wildlife tourism, as key stakeholders, have an important role to play. So far what has been done towards achieving this goal is more to do with style than substance, and a fragile resource may be pushed to its very limits with each passing year, adversely affecting its long term sustainability. In regard to the conservation of leopards on a countrywide scale, loss of habitat and loss of prey would be the two most important adverse impacts of recent years. Like elephants, leopards too occupy a large swathe of land across the island and many live outside of statutorily protected lands. Unlike elephants, leopards are not locked in a battle to share land with us, which usually leads to a high degree of human animal conflict. Although incidents between humans and leopards have seen an uptick, it is also seasonal or very site specific and exists at manageable levels. Importantly, the ubiquitous use of wire snares and to a lesser extent trap guns and poison play a role in ‘haemorrhaging’ leopard numbers especially in human dominated landscapes with forest patches, where they are still present. The Sri Lankan leopard is a distinct sub species (Panthera pardus kotiya) which is restricted to the island of Sri Lanka, therefore it warrants special conservation attention. The long-term conservation of both species is reliant on understanding the ecology and behaviour of each species and adopting conservation strategies to suit each. Towards this end, the findings of research, the energy  drive and capacities of conservation organisations, the goodwill of the general public and the will of policy makers need to be focused together on achievable goals.

 A fundamental disconnect between what is the reality of natural eco-systems and the co-dependencies of species living in them and the wish of policy makers to re-order land use and move animals around in a way convenient to present day political calculations, hampers the long term viability and survival prospects of all wildlife on this island. It is unfortunate that in recent months the government has removed protective legislation that was put in place in 2001 and made over six hundred thousand hectares of wilderness land available for agriculture and almost immediately large forested areas have been clear felled and bulldozed in preparation.