The Sri Lankan leopard is the topmost predator in the island. But with numbers most probably under 700 ,its status is under severe threat with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declaring our ‘panthera pardus kotiya’ as a highly vulnerable species.
The above number of 700 was from a study made well over 6 years ago .We have lost at least 82 leopards since then .Of them more than 42 in the central highlands. Given the possibly small population and little forest cover available, the mountain leopard of Sri Lanka may be on the verge of virtual decimation.
Primary reason has been traps or snares .Records indicate at least 52 such incidents to date in the districts of Nuwara Eliya and Kandy alone, out of which except for a mere handful, others succumbed to injuries sustained.
This kill rate could easily push the leopard population in the central highlands to extinction, as even in the best of times the thin forest cover would only support a limited number of leopards. Even Yala Block 1 which is considered as a high density site for leopards has upward of 20 leopards with a number of 18 per 100 square km (Yala Block 1 comprises little over 110 sq km). Except for Peak Wilderness reserve, and Horton Plains, the Mountains do not sustain any other significant forest cover to support a healthy population of leopards.
Thus the loss of a grown leopard could be much more than just a number. A leopard’s territory is somewhat larger .A male leopard is likely to move between few forest patches, on a regular basis. In fact sightings done at two reasonably distant places could be the same leopard .Unless the current spate of killings are checked, their numbers could fall below the recovery levels, in just a matter of time. The so-called critical mass may be a reality soon if not it’s the situation already.
A national effort in the line of Project Tiger of India might be the answer. Project Tiger contributed to bringing back the Bengali Tiger of India from the brink, with more than 30% increase in their numbers since 2015.The challenge at hand for the country is enormous in protecting one of Sri Lanka’s strongest of “brands” –the leopard .
In 2013 there were more than a dozen leopards killed in the Kumana area alone . Just two months ago Wildlife teams discovered more than 70 traps set in a single plantation. So far the kills this year have been at least 8 leopards. The latest casualties being mother and cub who were snared at Helbodde Estate closer to Uda Pussellawa, as well as the leopard found in a snare in Ginigathena-both incidents occurred in June. Two more leopards were killed in Nawalapitiya and Gampola during the previous two months –all of them by snares.
Rescue missions launched by Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) teams have for the most part ended in failure with the death of the leopard .On average it takes more than a few hours to reach the spot where the leopard is trapped. Once he is tranquilized, then again it takes many an hour to transport the injured leopard to Rantambe or at times to Udawalawe-the only available facilities capable of treating an injured wild animal in the mountains .Only now the department seems to consider setting up of a treatment center closer to the areas of incidents. But it has taken more than 42 deaths over the previous 6/7 years before the Department has made a decision.
Leopards are completely nocturnal animals in the mountains and they are highly unlikely to enter populated regions. Except for the rare story of a dog gone missing in an isolated village, threats on the livestock or humans by leopard attacks are very rare, as the records indicate. A study conducted a few years ago by ecologists Anjalie Watson and Kittle, both in Dunumandalawa forest reserve and Bogawantalawa area, no trace of livestock or domesticated animals such as dogs in the leopard scat were found by them. Interestingly various other types of animals such as barking deer, Wild Boar, Black- Naped Hare, Mouse Deer, etc comprised the diet. While Sambar was the prime prey in Bogawantalawa it has been the Porcupine in Dunumandalawa reserve, which is situated very close to human settlements, according to their findings.
There has been only one record of a leopard attacking a human during the recent years in the mountains – in Nawalapitiya area. If so how come these leopards fall victim to snares? As evidence shows almost all of these traps are found away from settlements, normally inside thickets adjacent to plantations. The popular theory that the snares are meant for Wild boar is questionable when one considers the location of snares. Wild boars prefer to hide in marshy areas and they are far easier to be snared once they reach settlements, usually in numbers of a dozen or more.
There have always been fears of a more sinister motive behind leopard deaths as opposed to mere accidents. The recent incident of dogs tied as bait near Ohiya, very close to Horton Plains strict nature reserve has been the clearest indication so far on the use of snares with the intent to catch leopards. Such modus operandi could point to only one direction-that of trade in leopards parts, either here or possibly abroad. Estate community has been known to respect the leopard for generations. If history is anything to go by, the killing of leopards in the mountains has been virtually unheard of until about a decade ago.
What caused this high rate of incidents over the last 5 years or so needs an investigation at the highest levels. The truth is virtually every reporting of a leopard being snared is informed by the workers in the plantations themselves with the seemingly genuine interest to save them.
Who would be the people who set these traps? Are they simple individuals with an idea of Wild boar meat or organized groups with other motives than adding some meat for dinner? Wild boar meat is a popular dish in certain hotels, restaurants in the mountains. Incidentally the leopard parts such as skins, teeth and at times claws have been known as products with a market in Srilanka as well .In Southeast Asia, these parts would be priced possessions .So the task at hand in saving what’s left of our leopards is no simple endeavor.
In fact there had been two specific incidents which occurred during the previous two years, where DWC discovered leopard carcasses with parts removed-in Udawalawe and Neluwa, close to Sinharaja reserve.
Sri Lanka needs to utilize national intelligence assets to launch probes in every possible angle of this sad saga. The current effort and the capacities of the DWC seem way below what’s required to stem the tide. A complete overhauling of DWC with added muscle would support their roles in multiple fronts, from elephants to leopards and many other issues in between, is needed.
The conduct of DWC has been severely criticized even by the Auditor General in his Performance Report in 2018. According to him, ‘The Department had failed to introduce a proper procedure for the protection of leopards and their community growth or for the safety of leopards and the public’
According to environmentalists Existing laws are way below what’s needed. Sri Lanka needs to go for a comprehensive Animals Protection Act, thereby covering a large number of species with one law which is less complex and easily enforceable. As per the existing laws, leopards receive protection under Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, coming under section 30.Killing, injuring the animal, keeping a body part of the animal in one’s possession and using a weapon to injure/ kill the animal are offenses. The fine for each offense could go up to Rs. 100,000.
If it was killed in a protected area then it’s a more serious offence under Sections 5 and 6 of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance ( FFPO) but hardly anyone has been punished to the full effect of law although more than 150 leopards had been killed during the last 20 years according to known records and the culprits had been nabbed.
Wild boar numbers have increased exponentially over the years. The government agencies need to get the matter of controlling their numbers into their hands rather than passing the effort to people which could well be disastrous as at least some of these leopard deaths have shown. A comprehensive plan to limit the ever growing wild boar population within a specific time period should be in order .Such a strategy would make it possible to ban the use of snares and other methods such as poisoning anywhere in Sri Lanka which cause harm even to elephants . Incidentally, even the use of Hakka Patas which killed hundreds of elephants during the previous decade has been primarily aimed at Wild Boar. Ideally, the sale and transport of Wild boar meat should be banned immediately until a government sanctioned programme is set in motion.
A dedicated strategy for restoring the leopard population and its habitat should be given the highest priority as this is among the biggest draws for tourism in Sri Lanka. Thus it’s a brand that generates substantial benefits to the country and people. [Just imagine the fate of Yala with lesser numbers of leopards. It’s time Sri Lanka takes a leaf out of or at best emulates the Project Tiger of India.