Accidentally Ensnared or Deliberately Hunted?
By Ranmini Gunasekara
Panthera pardus kotiya, the Sri Lankan leopard, is a subspecies endemic to the island, and is listed as Endangered in the IUCN Red list. Today, this apex predator fights for its survival against the most destructive species to roam the earth – humans.
In the last 10 years, Sri Lanka has lost up to 50 of its leopards to snares, and the last few months alone saw no less than six leopard deaths. With mounting outrage from the public, environmentalists and other activists, the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) has introduced stricter measures against the use of these manmade death traps.
While initially only those suspected of setting up such snares faced prosecution, the DWC’s new measures allow for legal action against the owners of estates or such premises where these snares have been set.
Speaking with Ceylon Today, Environmentalist and Attorney-at-Law, Jagath Gunawardena said that this would help control the use of snares in situations where estate owners fail to fulfil their responsibilities in this regard. He explained that the DWC had previously tried to spur estate management into action, but to no avail, and so resorted to this strict approach instead.
“It is an accepted legal principle that when those under someone’s authority do something wrong, the responsibility falls on the authority figure, which is called ‘vicarious liability’. It isn’t in the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, but is an accepted principle in the country’s general law. It transcends all laws; for whatever workers do, the responsibility lies with their employer. Similarly, as the estate is under the purview of an estate management company, that company is also responsible for the people under their purview,” he elaborated.
However, Conservationist Rukshan Jayewardene opined that even these measures would be insufficient to protect our leopards. “Even the suspect that was apprehended for setting the snare that caught the black leopard was released on bail some time ago. It’s not going to proceed beyond that. So what they’re doing is not sufficient at all,” he lamented.
Not an accident
Furthermore, he claimed there is increasing evidence to show that leopards are being snared deliberately, rather than being accidentally trapped in snares set for other animals such as wild boar. “This is something that the DWC has to get to the bottom of. If this is the case, then it is very serious, and they’re just barking up the wrong tree in thinking that leopards are simply getting caught in snares set up for wild boar, like some sort of by-catch. If people are trying to catch leopards, pretending that they are merely trying to catch a wild boar, this is an entirely different issue.”
He further alleged that there are cases of leopard meat being consumed in the hill country, claiming that there are far more leopard deaths in reality than the number reported. “I can say with responsibility that leopard meat is even eaten up in the hills, and there’s a lot more happening that never gets reported. Many more leopards are caught in snares than we will ever find out. I used to believe that these snares were set for wild boar and that leopards were caught by accident. But the data and evidence I have seen speaks of something very different happening,” he stated.
“The only cases of snared leopards that are reported show the leopard still alive on the snare, or dead in an area where passers-by have come across them. This is because those who set the snares and catch leopards would not report this – they extract its teeth and nails, skin it and process its body, and dispose of the leftovers in the forest.”
Jayewardene also highlighted the importance of carrying out a thorough investigation of the circumstances in such snaring cases, alleging that the DWC lacked the necessary capacity and training.
“It’s not only important to do an autopsy; it’s important to conduct a proper investigation and inquiry into the circumstances of the snaring. Why don’t they do that? Because if they did, the lack of capacity, knowledge and shortcomings on their part would be exposed – that’s why no inquiries take place. I think the DWC feeds a lot of rubbish to the Media. You should be double-guessing whatever, they tell you officially, because if they were to actually speak the truth about what they know, their workload would increase; they’d have to do a lot more than they are doing and their ineptitude would show. I’m disputing just about everything they say – because they are incompetent, ill-trained, ill-motivated and really not interested in the job of conserving Sri Lanka’s biodiversity.”
Unreliability of the DWC
He further criticised the DWC’s incompetence in the field, especially when it came to the Sri Lankan leopard, stating, “They are terribly afraid of the leopard because they don’t know enough about it. Not that the leopard is an animal you can treat like a pet cat, but the more you know about the animal, the better you understand how to handle it, its potential and its limitations. I have huge questions even regarding how they tranquilise leopards. They will say that I am not a veterinarian, but what kind of jobs are these vets doing? What is the success rate of release from a snare, how many have survived?”
In his opinion, the DWC is an unreliable source of information on the issue. “You cannot rely on the word of the DWC for any of these leopard-related issues; their word is not worth anything. There’s a lot of bluffing and covering-up happening, whereas the public needs the truth – and that’s what I am fighting for. I would like to see the wildlife-loving public of this country truly empowered so they can take the DWC head-on, with facts and figures. I will do everything in my power to see that happens.”
Speaking with Ceylon Today, Convener of the Rainforest Protectors, Jayantha Wijesinha confirmed that there have been several instances of leopards being killed deliberately.
“It is deliberate in certain areas, which we know very well. In 2016, at Agarapathana, people intentionally killed those leopards. In 2018, in Yatiyanthota, people had killed a leopard. They hadn’t set that trap for wild boars or anything, they set it for the leopard. Even the one that was found about two months ago in Yatiyanthota, we learned that people had gone to the Police several times to complain of the said leopard being a menace, and that they wanted to kill it. Even in the Killinochchi case in 2018, it was a deliberate killing of the leopard. So it happens intentionally as well.”
He further added that leopard deaths most frequently occurred in the Nuwara Eliya area, where they are mostly captured in snares. “Although one incident was reported in Neluwa, snares usually kill leopards in the Nuwara Eliya District, so this is where the DWC needs to place its focus. It would not be very difficult for them to do this either, because they have offices in that area, so in terms of access, they have sufficient resources.”
According to Wijesinha, most local communities tend to deliberately kill leopards to protect themselves, and not for trade.
“Rather than for trade, local communities more often will kill a leopard in self-defence. For instance, when the leopard starts roaming in estate areas, it’s quite dangerous for people to walk and travel, as children traverse small paths in those areas to go to school.”
Meanwhile, commenting on the DWC’s recent removal of the snares currently laid in the Laxapana Estate, Wijesinha added that it was likely that the snares would be placed again, and added that DWC needs to work closely with communities to prevent future snares.
“It’s a start, but that won’t work in the long run, because snares are placed frequently. I don’t know what methodology they use to remove the snares in place, but it has to be done by cultivating long-term relationships with the estate community. They also need an information network so they can learn about future incidents. How will they get to know about future snares? Who will inform them? And what incentives do the people have when they inform such cases?
“It has to be practical, and everything has to be linked. They can’t be dealing solely with the issue of leopards either, they need to be dealing with the bush-meat culture as well. An isolated approach where they only focus on the leopard isn’t the right way to go about it.”
Wijesinha further suggested that a pan-island leopard corridor network be proposed as a solution, alongside limits on certain hunting methods, such as snares, to safeguard the future of the Sri Lankan leopard.
As of now, the future seems grim and hopeless for Sri Lanka’s apex predator. With its rapidly dwindling numbers each month, without unless urgent and definitive action, the Sri Lankan leopard might one day be reserved to the pages of a book.