Save our leopards | Daily News

Save our leopards

Newspapers reported last week that the Yala National Park has recorded the highest-ever income of Rs.700 million in 2017. Most people visit Yala to catch a glimpse of the elusive Sri Lankan Leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), the only big cat found in Sri Lanka, which is called Diviya in Sinhalese and Siruththai in Tamil.

With a population of less than 1,000 individuals left, the Sri Lankan leopard has been included in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species. Several incidents of poaching of leopards have been reported recently, further highlighting the need for protecting this vulnerable species.

Worldwide, all big cats are facing a number of threats including habitat loss, poaching and hunting, illegal trade and extinction. Trophy hunting of big cats is still legal in many countries, which adds to the cats’ woes. The time has come to take concrete action to conserve these majestic species.

Hence the World Wildlife Day, which falls today (March 3) is celebrated in 2018 under the theme “Big cats: predators under threat”. World Wildlife Day gives us an opportunity to raise awareness about their plight and to galvanize support for the many global and national actions that are underway to save these iconic species.

The expanded definition of big cats is now being used by wildlife experts, which includes not only lion, tiger, leopard and jaguar -- the four largest wild cats that can roar - but also cheetah, snow leopard, puma and clouded leopard. Big cat species are found in Africa, Asia, and North, Central and South America, representing a virtually global distribution with the exception of Europe, Australia and Antarctica.

Big cats are among the most widely recognized and admired animals across the globe. However, these predators are facing varied threats, which are mostly caused by human activities. Overall, their populations are declining at a disturbing rate due to loss of habitat and prey, conflicts with people, poaching and illegal trade.

Tiger populations have plummeted by 95% over the past 100 years (fewer than 9,500 remain in the wild today) and African lion populations have dropped by 40% in just 20 years. In fact, lions have completely disappeared from 26 African countries. Some species such as the Amur Leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) is down to about 60 individuals, making them critically endangered. If no action is taken to save the Asian tigers and leopards, they might face the same fate as the Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo persica) which is now found only in Gujarat, India.

A few decades from now, you will be able to see some of these majestic creatures only through pictures or at zoological gardens if no serious efforts are made to increase their numbers in the wild. Ironically, zoos are one of the best ways of wildlife conservation. Zoo breeding programmes help various species to diversify their gene pool and increase their numbers, albeit in small increments.

Just a few months ago, two Sri Lankan leopard cubs ‘Yala and Nimala’ were born at the Bonham Zoo in the UK. This is a boost for the Sri Lankan leopard, which needs every possible help. Likewise, the main zoological gardens in Dehiwela is known worldwide for its breading and research programmes – three lion cubs were born there a few weeks ago. The zoo should enlighten visitors about these programmes as well, without just being an exhibition of animals.

It is vital to educate the people, especially those in villages bordering the leopard habitats, about the importance of conserving them. This is being done successfully in India where many organisations help the villagers to co-exist with the animals. Attacks on people give the leopards a bad name, but many fail to see why the leopards or other cats enter human territory. Most often, the cats face a habitat loss as humans encroach on their territory (we have seen this with elephants as well). Factors such as climate change also play a role as animals are forced to go to human habitats in search of water and food, which can sometimes unfortunately be livestock. This creates a conflict between animal and man for which finding a viable solution is extremely hard.

Sri Lankan zoologists and researchers should play a more prominent role in efforts to conserve big cats worldwide. Learning from other countries about their conservation programmes will give a better chance for our conservationists to help leopards to thrive. Restricting visitor numbers to Yala was just one step that could help the leopards to continue their dominance at Yala.

Education can play a vital role in protecting the Sri Lankan leopard and indeed, all other wild native wild cats such as the Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) Jungle Cat (Felis chaus) and Rusty Spotted Cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus). Schoolchildren and the general population know little or nothing about these precious cats. A lesson on these cats must be included in the school curriculum and electronic media must educate the public on them. That will boost efforts to conserve the wild cats of Sri Lanka.


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