Working together to conserve the Sri Lankan Leopard | Sunday Observer

Working together to conserve the Sri Lankan Leopard

30 July, 2023

In 2021, on an initiative of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS), together with the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), the Government of Sri Lanka declared that the 1st of August should be celebrated annually as Sri Lanka Leopard Day. The prime motivation for this was to draw the people’s attention to this iconic species, a sub-species unique to this island, and to the pressures that it now faces for its very existence, in and outside of protected areas.

This is an ongoing commitment for the WNPS which has organised several awareness programs across the country, involving over 100 schools, researchers and the people. In August, for its much-acclaimed public lecture series, the Society has re-invited the renowned Indian Leopard Specialist, Dr. Vidya Athreya to speak. A series of special focus events have also been planned around her visit, to address some of the key issues, to make the most of her knowledge and expertise, to help formulate further strategies for the long-term protection of this increasingly endangered, iconic species.  

Partnerships for success

In early 2022, LOLC Holdings PLC and the WNPS collaborated to set up the Multi-Regional Monitoring System for the Sri Lankan Leopard Project. This is a five-year Project built upon three primary pillars: Ecological Research, Raising Awareness, and the implementation of Conservation Projects. The goals for the first six months of the project included gathering information on leopard distribution outside of protected areas, understanding the nature of human-leopard interactions, and identifying areas with human-leopard conflict. This was achieved via the collection of data from various stakeholders and impact groups including officers from the DWC and villagers, thereby building a strong network of persons committed to leopard conservation.

This proved a timely, and essential, intervention designed to monitor and protect the nation’s apex predator against longstanding and emerging threats.

“While many of the big cats within natural reserves and sanctuaries are identified and accounted for, there remains a pressing need to understand the distribution and behaviour of this species outside the range of protected zones. As an organisation with an underlying passion for corporate sustainability, we are deeply committed towards sustaining resources for future generations, while delivering positive outcomes for the environment, as well as the communities that surround us.

Even as we continue to hear reports of leopard deaths and close interactions between humans and leopards, the Multi-regional Monitoring System will rely on a collaborative research-based model to gain a deeper understanding of the core issues. This vital program can improve our understanding of the complex dynamics that exist between humans and leopards across the island, and enable us to derive the ideal solutions to mitigate the challenges faced by both parties on a daily basis,” Kithsiri Gunawardena of LOLC said

What does the data tell us?

In 2022, 14 human-induced leopard deaths were recorded, with unreported deaths, no doubt, occurring in the hill country and dry zone. The Project identified the primary threat to this elusive and highly valuable species as habitat loss, with deforestation, forest fragmentation, and loss of linkage between protected areas posing significant other risks.

This is mainly due to the leopard’s highly territorial nature. Unsuitable development projects, and the conversion of temporary chena cultivations into permanent cultivations, served as the underlying causes of habitat degradation. Despite the fact that other animals that inhabit these critical regions are often the main target of poachers, poisoning and snares pose a secondary threat which can be potentially fatal to the survival of this vulnerable species.

The project has, therefore, embraced the role of educating communities regarding the unintended consequences of using snares, and of the danger they are to leopards and other wildlife.

“We are pleased to note that the project has been a resounding success to date. We are continuing to update the Leopard Distribution Map and have identified key points where conflicts and threats to leopards exist outside of protected areas. Our commitment towards raising awareness among the youth continues to remain at the forefront of our efforts,” Prof Enoka Kudavithanage of the WNPS said.

She said, “To date, we have conducted awareness programs in Sinhala and Tamil at 11 schools for 664 students at Panama and Pottuvil. After establishing the network and conducting awareness programs in the hill country, we have obtained tangible results, with many persons reacting positively upon encountering leopards by contacting the authorities to take corrective action, rather than taking matters into their own hands. We hope to continue to disseminate this essential knowledge, thereby enabling coexistence in areas rife with human-leopard conflict.

This a continuing process as unplanned development and habitat encroachment are pushing this valuable species to the brink of no return. The national parks of Sri Lanka are renowned for being one of the few places in the world where a wild leopard may be seen during the day. With no larger predators to threaten them, they are confident of showing themselves within the protection of these sanctuaries.

However, their territorial behaviour means that their boundaries often extend beyond these safe places. There they come face to face with nature’s arch predator, humans, against whose multitude of destructive inventions they have little defence. How empty, and ‘dead’ would Yala, Wilpattu, Kumana and the other parks be without these magnificent beings prowling the roads, and keeping the forest in balance.