Human-leopard conflict : Tragic twist as straying leopards face cattle farmers’ wrath | Sunday Observer

Human-leopard conflict : Tragic twist as straying leopards face cattle farmers’ wrath

On July 31, yet another three endemic leopards fell victim to the increasing animal and human conflict in the country. The remains of two young leopards and an adult female of the species believed to be their mother were found in the Nilgala Forest Reserve, suspected to have died after eating the remains of a dead cow laced with lethal poison. These killings are reportedly the most number of leopards killed in one particular place in the country, during recent times. Their killer, a cattle farmer in the area was arrested by the Police and eventually released on bail.

But this issue is not confined to the Nilgala area. The struggle between humans and leopards is spread across the country leaving many environmentalists and nature lovers concerned about the future of the endemic Sri Lankan leopard which is unfortunately also listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature ( IUCN) Red List as an endangered species.

According to OIC Karandugala Police, IP H.M Udayapala who was part of the investigation into the incident, similar retaliatory killings is possibly a common occurrence in the area which is known for cattle farming. While the recent killings came to light due to a tip-off received by the Police, he says, other similar incidents often go unnoticed and unreported. Officials of the Department of Wildlife and the Police say, the killings were a retaliatory move after one of the cows belonging to the man had been killed and devoured by, what he believed to be a leopard. “The herders and farmers in the area know that leopards often return the next day to finish off a meal,” he says, adding that the poison would have been added to the remains of the cow intended for the animal that killed it. The carcass of the leopards according to Police were found a mere 100 meters away from the land owned by the cattle farmer, making him the main suspect in the case.

Due to being a protected species, the killing of leopards is illegal under S. 30 (2) of the Flora and Fauna Ordinance. According to Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardena, those responsible for the recent killings can also be charged under S. 53 (a) of the Ordinance which prohibits the poisoning of an animal. Despite the legal protection, killings of leopards are often reported in the media.

According to Gunawardene, wrong type of reporting such as seen after the controversial killing of a leopard in Ambalakulam, Kilinochchi is responsible for creating a fear psychosis among the public against leopards, which has created further issues. “A bad reputation has thus been created as a result” he said. Gunawardena opines, while there have been leopards close to populated areas even in recent times, these negative reports have made some residents nervous and wary of their presence.

But, the conflict between humans and the species takes various other forms as well. As President of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society in Sri Lanka Rukshan Jayawardena puts it, the 21st century has brought a new set of challenges to the highly adaptable Sri Lankan Leopard. “The easy coexistence between leopards and humans that once existed has broken down in some areas” he pointed out adding that it must be addressed.

While untoward fears regarding the animal have led to their deaths at the hands of humans, according to experts the animals are killed for various other purposes as well. Some are killed due to being viewed as a menace to livestock while leopards are also killed for their skin, and other body parts. Also, they are snared, often accidentally getting caught to traps intended for other animals.

As for this particular incident, Jayawardena says, poisoning of carcasses has been happening, perhaps, for over a century in order to get rid of animals that have an economic impact on humans.

“But the killing of cattle by leopards is not a common occurrence” Jayawardena explains. However, he says, similar incidents may increase with humans now moving into areas that previously had no human habitation and sending their cattle into these areas to graze. He says, therefore, if cattle stray into the forest or if their herds are located near similar areas there can be a risk of them being killed by a leopard.

According to him, it is also important to note that people often hunt animals that form the prey base of the leopard leaving those roaming in the marginal areas of forest reserves little option but to kill livestock.

Conservation and addressing the issues of coexistence between humans and leopards too can be as complex as the problem itself. Jayawardena suggests, in the short term illegal snaring that leads to preventable deaths of leopards should be curtailed; and detection and prosecution must be stepped up as the cost to be paid as a country due to such illegal activities is very high. “But of course, there is political pressure when a suspected poacher is arrested, often some politician backing the accused” he alleges. While pointing out that the Wildlife Department needs more support and facilities in their conservation efforts, he claims however, the Department’s performance is still less than satisfactory.

Director General, Department of Wildlife, Chandana Sooriyabandara says, the solution lies in creating awareness and educating the general public. “The conflict between people and the animals are often outside protected areas, therefore, while law enforcement is important, creating awareness is paramount to the protection of leopards,” he points out.

He says, the issues often arise when human behaviour does not match with the behaviour of animals. “Therefore, if we can control human behaviour we can reduce conflict-related issues,” he says.

But with the existence of various other species depending on leopards, with it also being an iconic species endemic to Sri Lanka, experts say more needs to be done to ensure the coexistence of the species. 

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