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Spotted stripes

Feeling at home with leopards

The Sri Lankan Leopard is majestic and powerful. Agile and elusive. It is one of the most beautiful creatures on earth. However, the Sri Lankan Leopard, a fascinating species, has in 2008, been listed as endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list. In 1986 the Leopard was declared as endangered in the IUCN list. The leopard is one of the most adaptable species on earth being able to adapt to any condition. It is a master of camouflage and a powerful swimmer and an agile runner, able to ascend a tree. It is also a ruthless killer stalking its prey over long distances or waiting in ambush and then finishing off its prey with a bite from its sharp and strong teeth.

Zoologist Dr Andrew Kittle and Ecologist Anjali Watson held a lecture last week titled ‘Sheltering Under the Leopard’s Umbrella’, hosted by the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society. Kittle has conducted a comprehensive study of the Sri Lankan Leopard and has also done a large study of Carnivores. Watson has also worked alongside Kittle on his Carnivore research. She has also worked with primates in South American and Sri Lanka.

Leopard population

Here they discussed the threat to this apex predator (a predator at the top of a food chain) on the island. The Sri Lankan Leopard population is distributed throughout habitats across the island most frequently found in the Dry Zone and Wet Zone intermediate forests. Leopards can be found also in Yala National Park and the Wilpattu National Park and Sri Lankan Central Hills.

Humans and Leopards need to co-exist together but unfortunately, that is not happening in Sri Lanka. Leopards who live in protected zones are being threatened by humans who encroach upon these zones that are the domain of the leopards. Leopards who live in unprotected zones need protection.

Leopards are mostly nocturnal animals who hunt solitarily in the night but can be seen in day times as well. However, the tragedy is that this beautiful big cat is being killed and encaged in zoos. This animal who by right is the king of the predators in Sri Lanka – the smallest of the big cats. The Sri Lankan Leopard is also the largest leopard in the world. The Sri Lankan subspecies is one of the largest subspecies of leopard found in the world

Leopards have been highly prized for their coats with Sri Lankan authorities seizing a number of skins. Also, Leopard’s bones are in high demand for their medicinal value. We need to raise awareness about how to co-exist with this beautiful and precious creature. We need to educate people on how to avoid them. We need to increase our understanding of Leopards.

“In this planet, we live in, we are experiencing bio-diversity loss at a tremendous rate. And most of this is by humans. Human activity as we know interferes with the function of Eco Systems. This involves both land and marine life. These interferences cause changes amongst organisms that nature never intended. Sometimes they reduce population growth in certain organisms and sometimes they increase population growth. Human activities alter the interactions between organisms and their physical environments,” said Kittle.

Extinct species

The Dinosaurs were extinct due to other causes and not human interference. Now we see them only on Screen in movies like Jurassic Park and Jurassic World. Even though these movies introduce the concept that the dinosaurs can be brought back, for the time being bringing extinct species back is still a dream. It may be very possible that we will one day see the Sri Lankan Leopard only on screen.

“We are rapidly losing out on time. We need all the resources on hand to save the Sri Lankan leopard from becoming extinct. We need human and material resources. We also need the funding. We need support from the governments. The Leopard and the elephant in Sri Lanka are the flagship species. The Leopard must be high on the list when it comes to conservation priorities,” pointed out Kittle.

Dr Kittle also mentioned that there is a need to increase protection for Leopards. For example, if someone is travelling in the night they can travel in groups. Or if there are known Leopards in the territory, making a loud noise would help. There are so many survival tips that can be shared in these territories that can minimize the human-leopard clash.

The recent killing of a Leopard in June this year in Kilinochchi is a well- known story in Sri Lanka. The courts ordered the arrest of some villagers who beat a Leopard to death sparking outrage in communities in Sri Lanka who were outraged by what happened when they saw pictures of the Leopard body being proudly handled by villagers. Leopards have as much right as us to live and be left alone. They deserve to be free because they are born free in the wilderness.

Anjali Watson stressed that there needs to be more research done on Leopards and their behaviour patterns.

“I think the importance of patch forests and tiny little areas of forests and tea landscapes must be taken into consideration. Also, I think by protecting the Leopard, it acts as an umbrella for other species in Sri Lanka as well. A small piece of land can help a lot in protecting biodiversity in Sri Lanka. We know the central highlands of Sri Lanka have a lot of biodiversity. A little bit of land can make a lot of difference. We know the Leopards need movement corridors. This also helps in breeding. We need these corridors because in 2016 there have been around eight leopard deaths,” said Watson.

Leopard activities

Watson said there has been some success in monitoring the Leopard’s activities. It is important that human activity and leopard activity do not overlap. Watson pointed out that there is a need to push for new protection areas for leopards because when you protect the leopard there is protection for other species.

“We need to fight this fear of Leopards. They usually avoid humans and don’t look for conflict. If you know there are cubs then avoid that place because the mother feels anxious. If you have small children in the vicinity then be mindful of them. If you see a leopard, make a lot of noise and wave your hands appearing physically bigger than you are. If you know there is an injured leopard avoid that place because then it is more likely to attack a human,” said Watson. Watson also pointed out that the higher the prey available the higher is the density of Leopards.

“We see Leopard and humans contesting for prey like wild pigs. We also know that leopards get injured when they fall into the traps created for other prey by humans. Leopards are excellent ‘dads’ because once they have young of their own they protect the cubs from other males. Studies reveal that it is possible that the males remember individual adult females. Males claiming new territory have a reason to kill cubs—it brings the mothers back into heat, allowing the males to father their own progeny,” explained Watson.

Maybe the reason leopards need movement corridors maybe to avoid murderous males.

According to reliable statistics available, there are 125 mammal species in Sri Lanka, of which 1 is critically endangered, 10 are endangered, 10 are vulnerable, and 3 are near-threatened.

“Forests play a key role in Leopard conservation. We need to regenerate small patch forests. Because these forest patches form corridors to large areas. Leopards need these corridors to move into other regions,” said Watson. 



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