Photos courtesy of Ashane Marasinghe
Today is Sri Lanka Leopard Day
In 2021, the Wildlife & Nature Protection Society (WNPS), Sri Lanka’s oldest such organisation (the third in the world), with the aid of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), persuaded the government to declare August 1 of every year as Sri Lankan Leopard Day. It was on August 1 that renowned leopard researcher, Dr. Sriyanie Miththapala, published her thesis confirming that the Sri Lankan leopard, Panthera pardus kotiya, was an endemic sub-species unique to this island. Sri Lanka could now have pride in being the host of this iconic treasure.
Sadly, the reality has been anything but. Between 2010 and 2020, 102 wild leopards were killed by humans, often in the most horrible of ways; poisoned or trapped in snares. Both ways of killing are often tortuous with either the poison taking a long, agonizing time to kill or a snare getting progressively tighter and tighter around the neck, belly or leg of a leopard as the animal lunges to free itself – that is until either its organs burst or gangrene and septicemia spreads through the body resulting in an unspeakably excruciating death.
Present day threats
The leopard is protected by the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) and it is illegal to kill or possess the body parts of this endangered species. Yet leopards are frequently killed and although the majority are secondary victims of snares laid for wild boar and other game favoured by the palates of humans, some are still deliberately targeted. Gone are the days when households proudly displayed leopard skins as wall hangings or rugs to boast of their material wealth and breadth of travel. Neither do fashionable women now abominate their bodies and souls with the skins of leopards to enhance their inadequate levels of beauty. Instead, the leopard is pursued for its teeth and bones as talismans in rituals of sorcery or to be consumed as supposed aphrodisiacs as men grasp for scientifically unproven ways to supplement their poor standings of manhood.
In addition some leopards, who have killed domestic stock or dogs are targetted, often by poisoning the carcass to which the leopard will usually return. This is an increasing trend as incidents of human-leopard conflict are on the rise.
In national parks, unwarranted disturbance and bad behaviour by safari jeep drivers and visitors have endangered the lives of the leopards living in their sanctuary. They are either driven to the edges, and sometimes out, seeking safety from the uproar. A few cases are on record where speeding safari jeeps have hit and killed leopards and other wildlife within the supposed protection of the national park and on its peripheral roads.
Destruction of habitat
The greatest threat to the leopard, however, is unplanned development and illegal encroachment into its natural habitat. While Sri Lanka needs development, it must be planned, sustainable and take into account the wilderness and wildlife that may already be living in these areas. If that was done, then much of the human-wildlife conflict that happens could be avoided. For what is happening is that ad hoc projects are begun, often at the behest of local politicians, and forests and natural habitat are destroyed, pushing wild animals into smaller and smaller spaces. Unable to survive on the food available there, they encroach into cultivations that are now on their once home territories and their fate is inevitable.
The first to migrate towards people are the leopard’s prey species, drawn by the nutritious cultivations and having little left in the areas they are now confined in. They become the prime targets for the snares and traps as the local human populace hunts their number. The leopards are inevitably drawn into following them and then discover domestic animals whose weakened survival instincts make them easier prey than their wilier wild cousins. And so the conflict between human and leopard begins.
Their future rests with people
For many years now, the hierarchy of the statutory bodies involved in conservation has largely abrogated its duties of conservation in favour of pandering to the needs of whichever politician(s) rule their spheres of responsibility. Apart from superficial lip service paid to some issues, which are rarely seen through to the finish, on the whole the wilderness and wildlife under their control are badly managed, some to the point of destruction, and at the mercy of whoever wishes to exploit them. Apart from the betrayal of the principles on which they were founded, it also gives poor example to the lower echelons of management within these institutions as, by and large, those in the field are dedicated to the work for which they were recruited – to uphold the principles of conservation.
It must also be remembered that Sri Lanka is one of the few places where a wild leopard may be seen during the day. With no lions or tigers to compete with, leopards are the apex predators and have nothing but humans to fear. Ask the thousands of visitors to the Yala National Park, both foreign and local, and they will tell you the main reason for them being there is to see a wild leopard. This brings with it much needed foreign exchange to the country and prosperity to the Yala region.
It is a mercy that many non-governmental organisations, research institutions and even concerned citizens, work hard to protect that which is left. This often involves raising the necessary funds to see a project to its fruition; monies that should be provided by the relevant institution but are wasted on trivia. If proof was necessary, the media reported that a further 1,000 km of electric fencing are to be erected to mitigate for the human-elephant conflict. There already is enough electric fencing put up that could encircle Sri Lanka three times over. Yet the human-elephant conflict has increased in leaps and bounds with dead on both sides. The problem is not with the electrical fencing, still the best method of dissuading elephants from an area; it is where they have been erected, often between Forest Department and DWC land, purely on the whim of the local political power. So, where are they to place this next 1,000 km?
Working together for leopards
While little can be achieved without the full cooperation of the statutory agencies, much can be done to gather necessary information to hopefully help influence decisions based on scientific findings rather than anecdotal stories and political whim. One such initiative is that of the WNPS with LOLC Holdings Ltd, the coming together of the corporate and public spheres, working for conservation.
There has never been a comprehensive study undertaken in Sri Lanka to study its wild leopard populations. As such, whatever estimates have been made are guesstimates based on the knowledge obtained from localised studies. In 2021, the WNPS and LOLC launched the country’s first Multi-Regional Monitoring System for the Conservation of the Sri Lanka Leopard. This five year programme, funded by the LOLC, involves:
- The establishment of a network of specialised Leopard Conservation Locations and Research Centres across identified geographically important areas
- These research centres will focus, on a regional basis, on understanding the species function in populations or meta-populations that exist at much larger scales than individual management units
- Through the establishment of these research centres nationwide, smaller monitoring efforts will be easily integrated into larger programmes and databases. It will enable scientists and conservationists access to more comprehensive sets of data to understand local leopard populations, both regionally and countrywide
- Create a common knowledge and data sharing platform to drive a research-based island wide Leopard Monitoring Programme
At the start, six research stations were set up in Panama, Sinharaja, Kilinochchi, Belihul Oya, Kotagala and Sigiriya. The project will monitor the presence of leopards using camera traps and surveys. The research centres will liaise with local DWC and Forest Officers and also serve as educational hubs to generate awareness in the local communities, including knowledge dissemination and generating research based human-leopard conflict mitigation measures. This is critical in addressing the increasing number of leopard deaths in Sri Lanka.
In another such initiative, the Rainforest Alliance and Unilevers have commenced much needed awareness programmes in the upcountry plantation areas where there has been a rapid increase in the human-leopard conflict.
Every day not just today
In the last five years, the life of this iconic species, the Sri Lankan leopard has been under threat like it never has before. While Leopard Day is a necessary initiative to draw the public’s attention to the need to keep the leopard from slipping into extinction, this awareness and necessary action must be there every day of the year.
Just for a moment imagine spending a night in a wilderness in Sri Lanka. Imagine its sounds – cicadas, crickets, frogs, the warble of a nightjar and the occasional soft whoop of an owl – captivating, exciting, even calming. Suddenly, a deep, guttural, rasp echoes for a few moments, silencing the forests other sounds. The hairs on the back of the neck rise, not in fear but exhilaration and anticipation. This is the sawing of a leopard. Is this wonderful sound to be stilled forever?
Photos courtesy of WNPS