New twist in Kilinochchi leopard-killing saga | Sunday Observer

New twist in Kilinochchi leopard-killing saga

Scene of crime at brinjal field
Scene of crime at brinjal field

On June 21, in a brinjal field surrounded by houses, roughly five hundred metres from the local school, the villagers of Ambalakulam, off Kilinochchi, killed a leopard sparking a nation-wide outcry. Three weeks later, the gory saga has taken on a new dimension, after the post-mortem conducted on the animal has revealed that the leopard may have been raised in a cage. Veterinarians found a thick layer of fat on the slain creature they claim is an uncommon feature for leopards living in the wild.

Police have arrested seven people from the village of Ambalakulam, three kilometres away from Kilinochchi town, in connection with the leopard-killing.

Dr Akalanka Pinidiya of the Giritale Wildlife Veterinary Hospital was contracted by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) to conduct the post mortem investigation on the dead leopard. The report found that the three year old leopard had not eaten in two days. Oddly, this was despite freely grazing livestock found in Ambalakulam and surrounding villages. In fact, according to the Ambalakulam resident who was first injured by the leopard, the animal was initially spotted on a plot of land where animals were grazing, right next to his own house.

Dr Pinidiya told Sunday Observer that his autopsy on the dead leopard revealed a thick layer of fat on its body, something uncommon for leopards living in the wild and hunting prey. His findings showed that the leopard was “likely tame,” Dr Pinidiya added.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, Dr Tharaka Prasad, Director of Veterinary Health at the DWC confirmed the post-mortem findings. “Wild animals do not usually get a big layer of fat – they are always burning this fat by running through large spaces to hunt for food. It is usually when animals have been caged that they develop this abnormally large fat layer on their bellies,” Dr Prasad explained. Leopards in the zoo for instance, tend to have this hanging layer of belly fat, he added.

The post mortem report also found that the leopard’s stomach was totally empty and completely devoid of any animal fur lining the stomach walls, further indicating that the animal killed on June 21 had never hunted for food in the wild. “If an animal goes into human custody very early in its life, it will never practise hunting,” the DWC Director of Veterinary Health said.

“We cannot say the leopard was tame or domesticated because this is a wild animal that cannot be domesticated. But certainly the autopsy findings point to the fact this animal probably lived in a cage,” Dr Prasad explained.

However conservationists like Jagath Gunewardane said a thick fat layer on the body of a leopard does not always indicate it was domesticated. “I didn’t visit the area. But the leopard may have been domiciled in a small area, where prey was plenty,” he told Sunday Observer. “It may have been a lazy predator,” Gunewardane, a lawyer, said.

The findings tie into suspicions among some Ambalakulam residents about the leopard being somehow connected to a nearby Army camp. Two days before the leopard was killed, residents of Ambalakulam claim and DWC officials confirmed that Army officers walked around the village inquiring after a ‘large dog’ and warned a few villagers to be careful because he was ‘dangerous.’ People in the area know that both the military and the LTTE have had a history of domesticating wild animals. However, domesticating a leopard is a crime under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance and DWC officials say considering the post-mortem evidence, further investigations may be necessary.

According to DWC officials who did not wish to be named since they were commenting on the activities of the military, it was widely known that there were two wild bears in cages at the Saliyawewa army camp. The officials said it was more than likely that the marauding leopard in Ambalakulam was also a captive wild animal.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer Brigadier Sumith Attapattu denied the claims. Brigadier Atapattu said that while the army had a habit of keeping wild animals in camps, this was no longer the case. “We have deer and some birds. We have a lion in Ambepussa and an elephant. But these are mascots and authorised. We would never keep a leopard, it is a punishable offence,” the military spokesman added.

As for investigations, Brigadier Atapattu said he had clarified the issue with the former commander of that particular army camp, located near Ambalakulam. “He told me they didn’t have a leopard and I am sure they have not done this,” he added.

While there is general consensus that the situation was badly handled by all parties, the sighting of the leopard in the Ambalakulam village itself was completely unexpected. Residents and DWC officials say leopards had not been spotted in Ambalakulam and other villages nearby in at least 10 years. Neither the villagers nor the DWC teams in the region appeared to have a grasp on how to deal with a fierce predator roaming around a human settlement.

Nearly a month after the leopard was killed, Ambalapuram villagers claim to have acted in self-defense, saying the leopard’s proximity to the school had worried them. The students were moved to the top floor of the school building and arrangements to move them to Central College, Kilinochchi were being considered.

According to the villagers, the students’ relatives had made up the majority of the crowd early in the morning that fateful day.

Department of Wildlife Conservation officers from the Kilinochchi regional office arrived into the midst of this tense situation only to inform villagers that they would have to wait until the veterinarian arrived from Jaffna as they did not have any equipment and could not administer a tranquiliser.

Villagers admitted they were angry but chose to obey the order. However, they also surrounded the area to prevent the animal from escaping to adjoining lands.

Krishnasamy, Secretary of the Rural Development Society, who lives close to Ambalakulam, had stationed himself in the village the whole day. At first, Krishnasamy says, the crowd comprised mostly relatives and parents of schoolchildren who were trapped inside the school building. “We waited for the wild life department to come. The whole time from 8 a.m. till 11 a.m. we waited. All the men surrounded the leopard so it wouldn’t run away in that time,” he explained.

After a three hour wait and six injuries inflicted by the trapped animal, the wildlife veterinarian arrived on scene. According to residents, the leopard injured one of the wildlife officers at which point all the officers left the area to have him attended to medically. Abandoned, the villagers took matters into their own hands, hunted the leopard down and killed it.

Residents claim the seven men arrested were only those who took pictures with the animal after it was killed rather than the perpetrators of the crime.

Wildlife Department officers at the Kilinochchi regional office insist that they fulfilled their duties as best they could, under difficult circumstances and a constant lack of resources.

For instance, the DWC veterinarian in the area is in charge of Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi and Mannar. Based in Jaffna, the veterinarian usually comes to work in Kilinochchi but was on leave that fateful day. There are only two regional DWC offices in the entire Northern Province and neither has a resident veterinarian.

Although the veterinarian has informed the Department that there should be basic equipment at the Kilinochchi regional office, no action had been taken, Sunday Observer learns from Department sources in the region. If some of these issues had been addressed, the tragedy on June 21 could have been prevented, the sources added.

According to the police report on the incident, the Udayanagar Police were present in Ambalakulam from morning until the leopard was killed.

By the time the police arrived in the village, two villagers had already been injured by the leopard, the report states. Seven persons, including a DWC official were injured while the leopard was trapped in the village. The Police report also states that the first team of DWC officials who arrived on the scene had no equipment. The report also confirms that the officials who arrived with the veterinarian left when the leopard attacked one of their men, even though DWC officials claim they left the village because the villagers got unruly.

After the Vet’s team left the village, the report states that police officials could not control the crowd. After the killing, seven persons were arrested using video and photographic evidence and three more turned themselves in.

The leopard killing in Kilinochchi received a lot of attention for its brutality and close documentation. This attention has been accompanied by assertions about the ignorance of villagers, their post - war trauma and even their racial inferiority.

However, it appears that the killing itself was an act of protection in the absence of alternatives. Villagers and DWC suspicions about the leopard having had a connection to the military camp nearby, while inexcusable, sheds some light on the triumphalism and jeering in the aftermath of the killing that for many who watched the footage was more gruesome and morbid than the death of the animal itself.

Since the shocking incident, conservationists have stepped up calls for improving efficiency of all government departments and officials tasked with conservation to protect the handful of wild leopards left in Sri Lanka. The law alone cannot be depended upon to deter imperiled villagers from taking matters into their own hands.

As one eyewitness and parent in Ambalakulam put it: “Even if it is illegal and even if we are put in jail, wouldn’t we do everything we can to protect our children?”


School and fence

Comments

This animal was in the army camp.obviously they will deny.