To protect the Sri Lankan leopard: Coexistence, the key | Sunday Observer

To protect the Sri Lankan leopard: Coexistence, the key

The Sri Lankan Leopard or the panthera pardus kotiya, the apex predator of the Sri Lankan wilderness is a magnificent creature. Shy, and elusive, the endemic species have adapted to island living for centuries. But over the years poaching and habitat loss leading to increased animal and human conflict has rendered the Sri Lankan Leopard endangered. It is now quite unfortunately listed as a vulnerable species in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s ( IUCN) Red List.

Therefore, the gruesome deaths of two leopards at the beginning of the new year have been devastating news to environmentalists and wildlife enthusiasts alike. Their manner of death has been all the more shocking.

To an already dwindling Sri Lankan leopard population, the deaths were a massive blow.

The first killing was reported on January 3 from Udawalawe, within the protected National Park. The carcass of a fully grown leopard was found near the Mau Ara tank shot to death, its forelegs brutally severed and teeth pulled out. Initial investigations discovered that poachers had set a snare to entrap the leopard.

When caught the poachers who were arrested after a special operation jointly by the Police Special Task Force (STF) and Department of Wildlife Officials claimed that they had then gone on to mutilate the animal but only after it was already found dead. The postmortem conducted revealed that the leopard had met its end after becoming trapped in the snare.

Just days later another Leopard was found barely alive in the Peragashandiya, Yatiyantota area by villagers. Trapped in a snare and unable to eat or urinate the animal had suffered for nearly two days before being found.

Trying to escape from the death trap, the leopard with the tightened snare around its stomach had fled only to fall off a cliff. Despite clinging on to life and the efforts of Wildlife Officials it had eventually lost its battle for life.

According to environmentalists while the legal protection for the species is sufficient, in the light of the current situation enforcement and other protection, as well as conservation efforts, must be stepped up.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer environmentalist and Attorney at Law Jagath Gunawardena said the situation relating to leopards have only worsened over the years.

According to Gunawardene, due to being a protected species the killing of leopards is illegal under S. 30 (2) of the Flora and Fauna Ordinance.

“Therefore killing, injuring the animal, keeping a body part of the animal in one’s possession and using a weapon to injure or kill the animal are offences,” he said, adding that the fine for each offence could go up to Rs. 100,000.

Gunawardene pointed out that poachers may have targeted the leopard in Udawalawe as the nails and teeth of leopards are often considered to be good luck charms. With an understaffed and underfunded Department of Wildlife left to tackle poachers and implement conservation plans, Gunawardene said the status of leopards continues to be threatened.

With the protection and conservation of elephants becoming the main focus of the Department of Wildlife, Gunawardene said the protection of leopards is often neglected.

Rukshan Jayawardena, committee member of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka and leopard enthusiast agrees. “With the pressure exerted on the officials due to the so-called human-elephant conflict, they have no interest in the conservation of leopards,” he said.

According to sources, despite the threatened status of the Sri Lankan leopard, no official data has even been collected by the Department of Wildlife. Therefore, the exact numbers of the Leopard population in Sri Lanka remain a mystery. “ Thus, it is difficult to say if there is an increase or decrease of leopards,” Jayawardena said.

While leopards have learned to coexist with humans in the past, according to Jayawardena the 21st century has brought some unique challenges to this once peaceful relationship. While both animals were trapped by snares resulting in their painful deaths, according to Jayawardena snares claim more lives of leopards than any other method.

“They kill indiscriminately,” he said. According to Jayawardena, a system must be implemented to monitor the purchase of wire cables in large quantities as they are used to set up snares by poachers. “Often these cables appear to be new as they function without any glitch,” he said.

According to Jayawardena, these wires are often used as clutch cables in threewheelers and purchases of large quantities by those other than persons involved in the industry must be checked and regulated.

Explaining as to why this is important in protecting the leopards, Jayawardena also pointed out that on some occasions it was clear that snares had been set up directly targeting leopards. Recalling one instance where a leopard had been ensnared, Jayawardena said on observation it was clear the snare had been set with capturing a leopard in mind.

“The surrounding scene where rocks had been used to kill the animal and other evidence confirmed this,” he said.

According to Jayawardena the animal’s importance to the ecosystem with it being the apex predator in Sri Lanka must be understood along with its economical importance in relation to tourism.

As for conservation and protection, Jayawardena says there is very little humans need to do in this regard.According to Jayawardena with the leopard being highly adaptable humans only need to step back in certain areas.

“They do not confront humans and often prefer to exist like ghosts,” he said adding that the leopard attacks happen due to human behaviour when they do take place on rare instances.“ he said. “If humans step back the leopards will do the rest” he added.