Pic by Malaka Rodrigo
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
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
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.
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
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.