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Leopard tales from the past

[Part 2]

Continued from last week

The leopard wanders far and wide in search of food and generally have a beat of their own (Wickwar, 1947). Wickwar also says that he had come across a female leopard, which was a cattle thief, which never returned to its kill. Therefore it was able to survive for a long time. He felt that since this leopard did not kill daily, that it fed on game in the intervening days. When it was eventually killed by a villager, Wickwar had paid him RS.10 'for a very fine leopard skin'.

Wickwar (1947) then goes onto describe a leopard that was a dog-snatcher. "This leopard only attacked and carried away dogs.


Leopards are carrion feeders Pix: Indika Edirisinghe

The animal too was very elusive" Wickwar in an attempt to shoot it had a strong cage of sticks made, inside which they proposed to tie a dog as bait. They had paid Rs. 2.00 for the hire of the dog and promised Rs. 5.00 if the dog was not returned.

Whilst the labourers were taking the dog and pen to a spot in the jungle, the leopard had jumped out of the jungle and grabbing the dog away from the labourers, had bounded off to the jungle.

Leopards are particularly fond of stealing dogs, and have frequently taken them from the very verandahs of the houses at Newera Ellia in the dusk of the evening (Baker, 1855) Dogs are an almost irresistible attraction, for some reason or other, and cases have been known of dogs having been pounced upon and carried off when following at master's heel.

Mudliyar G. Jayawardene, the Revenue Officer of Tamankaduwa, told me that once when his wife, who had been away, was returning to Topawewa along the road from Habarane in a travelling cart, a leopard actually pounced on a favourite dog, which was trotting along just behind the cart, and carried it away (Storey, 1907).

On the occasion of sending home a leopard as a presentation to the Royal Zoological Society of London, the writer had caught it as a cub while on an elephant shoot in the north central province, and had kept it in captivity for some four or five years.

This shows how their wild nature may at times be suddenly changed to one of affection. It was a fine animal nearly full grown.

Placed in a strong travelling cage, it was taken on board a local steamer for passage round to Colombo. From thence it was to be transshipped to a Government transport for conveyance to England. The passage from Trincomalie to Colombo occupies about four days by sea, allowing for stoppages at different ports.

A supply of fowls was therefore sent on board for its food, with directions that two were to be given daily. Amongst these birds was a bright little brownish-coloured speckly hen, which, like the others, was in due course put into the cage. This bird the leopard would not touch, although it did not hesitate to devour the rest of a different colour. It took an extraordinary fancy to it, and would fondle and caress it all day, and, strange as it may appear, both remained together shut up in this cage on the most affectionate terms, all the way home. When, however, the leopard had to be transferred to another cage at Portsmouth for the journey to the Zoo, it thought, perhaps, that it might be separated from its little friend. At all events, it then killed and ate it (Millett,1914).

Carrion feeders

Leopards are carrion feeders. After a kill they eat the internal organs and offal first and leave the carcass to decompose.

The flesh is consumed when it is covered in maggots. Large colonies of ants descend on the decomposing flesh and makes it difficult for the leopard to consume it. The leopard therefore has to drag the carcass around to get rid of the ants (Wickwar, 1947).

Sir Samuel Baker (1855), says "It is a prevalent idea that a leopard will not eat putrid meat, but that he forsakes a rotten carcase and seeks fresh prey.

There is no doubt that a natural love of slaughter induces him to a constant search for prey, but it has nothing to do with the daintiness of his appetite.

A leopard will eat any stinking offal that offers, and I once had a melancholy proof of this." He goes on to describe the death and burial of a young boy and later he had gone past the grave only to find that a leopard had dug up the shallow grave and eaten the decomposed carcass leaving only bits of clothing and pieces of bone.

Wickwar (1947) says the "It must not be assumed that all leopards are as particular about their diet as the two leopards referred to above. They are the exception. Elephants have no cause to fear the leopard and full grown buffaloes and wild boar are seldom attacked, but almost any other animal or bird, large or small, may be included in a leopard's menu".

Fortunately there are only very few cases on record of a true man-eating leopard in Ceylon. The history of this leopard is recorded in detail elsewhere in this article. Hennessey (1949) refers to an interesting incident. "A Kandyan chieftain of our acquaintance once kept a leopard until it was two and a half years old.

It was much attached to him and used to follow him about like a dog. When, as he reclined on a long chair one evening it sat by him and started licking the sole of his bare foot he thought nothing of it until he tried to stand up, whereupon the leopard growled. Coaxing was of no avail, and he soon found it was best for him to keep still, although by then blood was flowing and the animal, growling all the time, was licking more determinedly and rapidly. The servants' attempts to lure it away with chunks of meat only seemed to annoy it. Finally, a gun was handed to its anchored master, who had to shoot his pet through the head.

Baker also refers to an incident in Nuwara Eliya where an irate cow gored senseless a leopard that got into the cattle shed and tried to attack its calf. Deer, barking deer, sambhur, rock squirrels, monkeys (macaque and langur), pea fowl and jungle fowl, all warn their jungle friends when Public enemy No 1 is on the prowl. My experience is that the best scouts are wanderoos, as they generally travel along the tree tops for some distance above the leopard, and give the sportsmen (and everyone else) a rough idea of the direction in which it is moving (Wickwar, 1947).

Tennent (1861) says that there was a firm conviction amongst the natives of Ceylon that 'when a bullock is killed by a leopard, and, in expiring, falls so that its right side is under-most, the leopard will not return to devour it'.

This is confirmed by Marcus W. Millet writing in 1914, who states "Another peculiarity of the leopard is one for which natives as well as English sportsmen vouch. It is that if, when a head of cattle is killed, the animal chances to fall, so that its right (or liver) side is undermost, a leopard will make off and not return to devour it.

The writer has seen practical evidence of this singular nature, and in such circumstances it is hardly worthwhile sitting over a kill of this kind, with a view of shooting the spoiler".

"It was this same gentleman who, while proceeding a game track with Bree in the late afternoon, startled a leopard, two shots catching it just before it disappeared. They concluded, from the roar with which the animal dashed away, that it was mortally injured.

Almost simultaneously with the shots, another leopard took the game track in a single bound and vanished in the wake of the first. Darkness had fallen, so the men withdrew, but returned the next morning to follow the trail. Soon they spied bits of spotted skin and a tangled, shapeless mass of blood and flesh.

While looking dejectedly on the tattered remains of their trophy, it dawned on them that the work of destruction was not that of the untidy jackal, as they had at first thought, but of another leopard, most probably the dead one's mate - a seldom-heard-of cannibalism, though leopards will often devour the skinned carcase of one of their own species (Hennessey, 1949)."

A Ranger's report

This is an extract from a Report by Wildlife Ranger T. Meynert: It is my considered opinion that this decrease in deer is due to the undoubted increase in the number of leopard.

I attach reports and translations from eight watchers, three of whom have done 15 years continuous service in these reserves. It must be admitted that the watchers and I are the best judges of conditions in the areas under reference as we live there.

Up to 1928 - I am open to correction - the shooting of leopards (and bear) was permitted in the Yala Game Sanctuary(present Strict Natural Reserve) during the close season of every year. The exact numbers of leopards shot be Sportsmen in the areas is not known, but figures will be available in the old record books maintained at the time at Platupana.

The shooting of leopard in the Yala Game Sanctuary helped considerably in preventing these animals from increasing unduly and as a result great herds of deer were always seen in that area.

Although no leopard was shot in this area (S.N.R.) after 1928, no one will deny that a fair number of those leopards that strayed across into the S.N.R. (present N.P.) on the west and the Shooting Zone on the east (present Y.E.I.Z.) would have been destroyed by sportsmen, who thus helped to keep down their numbers even though shooting was not permitted within the boundaries of the Yala Game Sanctuary.

Records show that 47 leopards were killed by Sportsmen in the R.S.R. between December 1931 and March 1938 ie before the area was turned into a national park. Add to this figure the number shot by my predecessor from 19931 to 1934 which information gathered was not short of a dozen. Between 1935 and March 1938 I shot a round dozen myself. This brings the grand total to 71 leopards killed in a little over six years. For the purpose of this report those leopards which in nine cases out of 10 would have died of wounds and not been found by Sportsmen can be ignored.

A moot question is how many deer a week does a leopard kill for food? There are some who credit a leopard with a kill every day, as it is a well known fact that leopards are very destructive animals and often kill for the mere lust of killing. Others allow a leopard a kill every other day.

From the experience my staff and I have gained I would consider that two kills a week or a hundred deer per year a very fair estimate for a leopard.

I am of the opinion that the shooting of as many leopards as possible should be allowed both in the Ruhunu National Park and the Yala S.N.R. without any further delay for at least the next five years and permission be granted to those who are keen enough to come to these areas.

At the end of this period authority should be given to the Game Ranger to destroy at least 6 leopards a year in each of the areas ie the Ruhuna NP and the Yala SNR.G.I. Anderson (1944) commenting on Meynert's report states: "From old records, starting from the time Sir Samuel Baker wrote of Up-country jungles until about the year 1910, very few references are made to leopards being in large numbers at high altitudes, with the exception of the years1907-1909.

There is no question that during these two or three years leopards were very numerous at high altitudes and one had only to traverse jungle paths or roads, Sita Eliya, Nuwara Eliya, Ambawella, Pattipola, Ohiya, Horton Plains, to the Agrapatanas and Bogawantalawa, a vast stretch of jungle country, yet fresh tracks of leopard were everywhere.

Colder climate

The reason for this was probably due to long periods of dry weather during the months of June to October in the Low country, preceding the years mentioned. Long droughts in certain areas will cause deer and other game to move from their usual quarters. It is more than likely that this caused an exodus of leopards into the hills.

To get back to Mr Meynert's question, the habits of leopards in the hot zones are very different from its way of living in the colder climate.

Observations have proved that in the hill country of Ceylon a leopard will keep what we call a "routine larder", that is to say, it will always have two kills going at the same time, and very often a third, visiting them in turn, this of course was when Sambhur were very numerous in our Up-country jungles which they are not today, and there are only one or two stray leopards moving about.

A leopard is not particular as to what it eats provided it is flesh and blood; it will eat putrid meat if it is unlucky in not getting a fresh kill. Excreta has shown anything from a Barking Deer's teeth to quills of a porcupine - Meynert's estimate of two deer per week for one leopard is probably an under estimate for the Ruhunu National Park.

If one takes into consideration the rapid putrefaction in the hot zone, to say nothing of the various other animals such as jackals etc., which always keep in close touch with a leopard, after the second day there is very little left of a deer's carcass. The estimate of Sambhur killed up-country by every leopard was two per week. That was of course when game was plentiful.

It is difficult to reconcile the reports from the Ruhunu National Park, one says deer are very scarce while another reports leopards in large numbers. If deer have left the locality surely leopards would not remain. Leopards have cannibalistic tendencies.

A female was shot by a spring gun and when found the carcass had been half eaten by its mate (Anderson,1944)."

Sense of smell

Agar (1942) says that the leopard has a very poor sense of smell. Leopards have very keen senses of sight and hearing.

They are clever and are able to stalk their prey very well.

Those who have sat over a water hole or kill day or night must have been struck by the phantom-like manner in which a leopard will appear suddenly without the slightest sound.

When motionless in jungle or scrub, particularly when the sun is up, they are most difficult to recognise, as their colouring blends so perfectly with their surroundings.

(To be continued)

 

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