Leopard Conservation

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Awareness programmes alone may not be enough to conserve the hill country leopard, but complemented by a crop insurance scheme, they may.

This has to be looked at in the context that several leopard deaths, particularly in the hill country, occurred due to leopards being caught in snares laid for vermin such as wild boar which destroy vegetable patches, despite such awareness programmes.

This newspaper ran two stories on Friday with regard to leopards being ensnared in traps in the plantation areas and subsequently dying, this month alone. Further, PMD Teas in a blog dated 1 August 2022, said, “In 2019 a Leopard had been spotted on a motion camera in Nallathaniya, Nuwara-Eliya. Sadly a snare set up by the residents to trap wild boar to prevent them from ruining their vegetable crop ended up killing the leopard.”

Meanwhile, the website, ‘yalaleoparddiary.com’, which published a story this year, under the heading ‘Hill Country Leopard Conservation initiative’, said, “The Hill Country Leopard Conservation Initiative started by Dushyantha Silva, Milinda Wattegedara, Raveendra Siriwardene and Mevan Piyasena, where environmental scientist and former Director General, Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya guides the initiative, with the cooperation of the DWC, has as its objective of conserving the leopard which roams in the hill country tea estates and the adjacent forests.

The initiative has conducted many awareness programmes on the aspects of how to handle a situation if a leopard is sighted, How to handle a situation if a leopard is caught in a snare and the importance of de-snaring. The initiative has covered ninety per cent of the hill country tea estates in Sri Lanka during the year and will continue the awareness programmes. It has also set up quick communications between the DWC hierarchy, regional DWC office park wardens and DWC rangers and the chain of command of the plantation companies which includes the CEO down to assistant managers of the respective estates of plantation companies, through digital communication platforms. Quick communications between the stakeholders have saved many leopard lives in the hill country. There is a significant reduction in the number of leopard deaths due to snaring in the hill country as a result of the initiative.

The initiative also emphasised the need for a quick DWC reaction team to handle leopard-related incidents in the hill country and the DWC has obliged by taking the first steps in establishing the new Gampola range office,  a central location in the hill country.

The Hill Country Leopard Conservation initiative is self funded by the initiators. The initiative will continue to strive for greater conservation of the hill country leopard by means of meaningful and practical strategies.”

Complementing these developments, a paper titled ‘Human-Leopard Conflict in Selected Tea Plantation Eco Systems in Hill Country of Sri Lanka’ authored by K. Vinojkumar and C.S. Wijesundara and submitted at the ‘Proceedings of the Postgraduate Institute of Science Research Congress, Sri Lanka: 29 -31 October 2021’,  said, “Awareness programmes will help improve the sustainability of tea ecosystems which are required to obtain tea estate certifications such as Rainforest Alliance UTZ and Fair Trade. Avoiding deforestation and planting native trees in deforested areas will increase prey availability for leopards; thus, it may help in reducing conflict rates in the long run.

Most of these conflicts result in human-caused deaths of leopards. The study was conducted from January 2016 to February 2019, focusing on 15 estates in the Kandy and Nuwara Eliya Districts. Tea estate managers, employees, estate communities and school teachers were the target group.

Results indicate that the majority of respondents experienced the conflict, severity depending on study areas.   Eighty per cent of respondents (n = 214) indicated that the leopard killings were due to snares targeted at wild boar.

Misidentification of leopards by estate communities leads to the unintentional killing of fishing cats, another endangered species, while most of the community (84 per cent) had a negative attitude towards leopard conservation due to fear and lack of awareness of the role played by the leopard in the ecosystems.”