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Sunday, 27 September 2015





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With another leopard killed in a trap, the question that arises is Sri Lanka heading for a Human-Leopard conflict?:

Predator in peril

Even as foreign visitors to Yala rave about leopard sightings, leopard obituaries are becoming an all too common news item, leading one to wonder just how unsafe life has become for this magnificent lonely predator.

The latest addition to the dead leopard list is the magnificent seven-foot ‘Panthera pardus kotiya’ caught in a trap in Top Pass woods in Nuwara Eliya last week. The leopard’s body was found by wildlife officers, and the corpse is now lying with the Nuwara Eliya Wildlife School.

Taxidermy may preserve the animal showcasing a sample of the magnificent predator, but nothing underscores the tragedy of yet another leopard killed by human means, more so as the killing had occurred within the sanctuary meant to protect it.

Whether the trap was meant for leopards or some other predator, one may never know. But the inescapable reality is that a snare is the worst way to kill an animal, especially a leopard.

According to researchers, death for a leopard caught in a snare is extremely unpleasant, especially if it is caught around the middle with the snare ending up like a cinched belt at the hips. This, the researchers say would literally start tearing apart the animal as futilely it struggles for freedom.

Dr. Andrew Kittle who has been researching the lonely predator for over one and half decades through the Leopard Project of the Wilderness & Wildlife Conservation Trust (WWCT), says the Sri Lankan leopard population today is estimated to be around 750 – 1000, considerably small compared to the land area of the country.

Pic : Kadun Pradeep

The Leopard Project of the WWCT was established in 2004 by Dr. Kittle and wife, Anjali Watson, to study the demography, range, use and behaviour of the Sri Lankan leopard.

“Many of the leopard kills are reported from the central hills particularly due to snares,” explains Dr. Kittle adding that this fact remains true even though visitors and wildlife enthusiasts have reported frequently sighting of leopards, particularly in national parks like Yala. “When there is an abundance of natural and man-made water pools in any area, leopards do frequent because their prey, the spotted dear, will be found in abundance too,” he says.

Dr. Kittle is of the view that although leopards are largely nocturnal animals, in Sri Lanka, they are more visible, perhaps due to having no existing competitors.

He also predicts the high possibility of a Human- Leopard conflict happening due to the still unknown leopard population the recently cleared Northern jungles. Traditional farms turned in to secondary forests as people abandoned the areas due to the war. “People recently resettled in the areas and a lot of development is happening. People have started rearing cattle and livestock. A lot of forest gets cleared for these purposes. And all these create a conducive environment for the conflict to emerge,” he points out.

Dr. Kittle indicates that more than the snares, leopards get trapped in the habitat fragmentation due to deforestation that is happening at a higher rate as a result of the numerous development work taking place all over the country. “The leopard will head towards villages and easy prey as more and more forests get fragmented,” he point out, adding that the threat will be in addition to the misery the leopard population is facing in the southern parts of the country, even in the sanctuaries.

According to Dr. Kittle, Sri Lankan leopard tops the predator list without any competition over centuries.

Distribution Map - copyrights Dr. Andrew Kittle,The
Wilderness & Wildlife Conservation Trust

A scientific paper published on research done by Professor Sriyanie Miththapala revealed that Sri Lankan leopards are genetically unique. This theory is further expounded by zoologists who say that due to living in an island for centuries, the leopard population shows different characteristics when compared to their cousins living in close proximity, like in the Indian subcontinent.

Tracking leopard population in Wilpattu

Dr. Andrew Kittle and his wife Anjali Watson are conducting another phase in studying and counting the leopard population in Wilpattu, with the approval of the Wildlife Conservation Department, using digital remote cameras with incandescent flash, which they have been using during other researches done recently. “This area was well known for its leopard population prior to the civil war (1983 – 2009) but was essentially closed off during the entirety of the conflict and is only now starting to be visited by local and foreign tourists. In the 1960s the Smithsonian Institution out of Washington DC documented some aspects of leopard ecology in Wilpattu but no systematic survey has ever been conducted here,” explains Dr. Kittle.

There is a school of thought that believes the Sri Lankan leopard is in fact the tiger because of these very different characteristics. But tiger or leopard their habitat is increasingly becoming an unsafe place for them on a daily basis.

This is reflected in the frequency in which leopards are killed. Prior to the Nuwara Eliya death, a leopard killed by a speeding vehicle in Yala, a place where vehicles forbidden from speeding. It has not been determined whether the vehicle was a safari jeep or a private vehicle. Yet over speeding within the National park still continues to place the animals on the path of danger.

The issue of speeding within nature reserves meant to give sanctuary to the wild animals, all in a bid to let foreign tourists catch a glimpse of the leopards and other rare wild things, has is serious. But as H.D. Ratnayake, Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, points out, despite several rounds of discussions with the Safari jeep owners, they have not been able to put a complete stop to it.

The death of the rare black leopard killed in a trap in Deniyaya created great awareness in March 2009 and today hardly anyone remembers it other than during an occasional visit to the Giritale Wildlife Museum where the corpse is preserved. Wildlife officers speaking to the media said the animal would have undergone immense pain as it kidneys could have got ruptured as the steel loop of the snare tightened around the loin area and internal organs would have got damaged. The fate should not be repeated. But as the recent death showed, leopard death history is something that keeps repeating itself.


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