Working for the survival of Sri Lankan leopards

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Three of the finest minds on leopard conservation, Prof. Enoka Kudavidanage, Rukshan Jayewardene, and Kithsiri Gunawardena, partook in a panel discussion to discuss the present and future needs for the continued existence of the beautiful and endangered Sri Lanka leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya). This event on 18 August, 2022, was hosted by the Wildlife & Nature Protection Society (WNPS). The full recording of this discussion is available on the website of the WNPS. Some of its key points were:

Though there is no definitive answer as to the number of wild leopards in Sri Lanka (approximately 800 – 1,000 as per educated estimates), as no comprehensive study has been carried out to determine this, it has been recorded that 102 wild leopards have perished at the hands of humans between 2010 and 2020.

Leopards are masters of adaptation and occupy any suitable habitat where they have some forest cover, from the North to the South, including on the periphery of urban settlements. Vital to this is the availability of prey species. However, as these habitats are encroached on and destroyed, and the prey species disappear along with them, then leopards are being squeezed into the last remaining protected areas, and even into human neighbourhoods, in search of food. This, in turn, will have a negative effect on populations of leopards – from increased human-leopard conflict, depletion of prey species, increased competition, and in-breeding.

As a keystone species, a creature that helps define an entire ecosystem, the survival of the leopard in Sri Lanka is crucial for the balance of nature in the wilds. Should they disappear, the resulting imbalance will send the number of prey species up and, as they are mainly herbivores, create irreparable damage to the local flora. Inevitably, these species too will seek sustenance in adjoining human cultivations.

Leopards attract wildlife enthusiasts, especially those from overseas, to this country’s shores, and with them much needed foreign exchange. With no predators larger, tigers or lions, Sri Lanka is the one place that leopards may be observed during the day and thousands flock to Yala and Wilpattu just to do that.

The WNPS successfully campaigned for the declaration of the 1 August as Sri Lanka Leopard Day. The prime motivation for this was to draw the general public’s attention to this iconic species, a sub-species unique to this island, and to the pressures that it now faces for its very existence.

In addition, in the last year, the WNPS, in partnership with LOLC Holdings PLC, Sri Lanka’s leading and largest diversified conglomerate, launched a five year programme to establish a network of specialised leopard conservation locations and research centres across identified geographically important areas. These Research Centres focus on understanding how the species function in populations or meta-populations that exist at much larger scales than individual management units. The objective is to create a common knowledge and data-sharing platform to drive a research-based island-wide leopard monitoring programme. Through the establishment of these Centres, smaller monitoring efforts will be easily integrated into larger programmes and databases. It will give scientists and conservationists access to deeper and broader sets of data to understand local leopard populations, regionally and countrywide.

Six research stations have been set up at Panama, Morningside, Kilinochchi, Belihul Oya, Nallathanniya and Sigiriya. The Project monitors the presence of leopards in these selected geographical areas, using camera traps and surveys. The Research Centres liaise with local wildlife and forest officers, and also serve as educational hubs to generate awareness amongst the local communities, including knowledge dissemination and generating research-based human-leopard conflict mitigation measures. This is timely and critical, in addressing the increasing number of leopard deaths in Sri Lanka, predominantly through snares set up in a human-dominated landscape.

To use the old adage, knowledge is power. We now have and are sharing even more of it, every day. Let us use this power to save the Sri Lankan Leopard from extinction.

By Rohan Wijesinha