By Mel Gunasekera
Wildlife conservationists are encouraging leopard fans to explore other parts of Sri Lanka to scout the top cat that has been spotted even in the former warzones.
Though the cats are found across the mountainous central region, leopard sightings are more popular in the southern Yala wildlife park.
Split into several units, the Yala sanctuary has emerged a prime location to spot leopards, particularly block one where dozens of cats move around comfortably among people due to habituation from years of frequent park visitation.
Yala block one a hotspot
Some 25 adult leopards currently reside in Yala block one, along with cubs and visiting cats, that takes the total number to around 50, said Andrew Kittle, a zoologist.
The high visibility of leopards, the frequent sightings of young cubs, easy prey, water and the absence of dominant competition, has made Yala block one a hotspot among game safari operators, film crews and budding photographers.
Kittle, principal researcher of the Leopard Project Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust (WWCT), studied the Yala leopard population for two-years together with his zoologist wife Anjali Watson in 2001.
As Yala block one’s popularity grows, scores of safari jeeps crowd close to the animals potentially putting the leopards under stress.
Watson said the way out, is for enthusiasts to explore other parts of Yala that are now open to the public after the war ended. Small populations of leopards also survive along the hilly central region terrain.
Local tour operators have also begun to encourage wildlife enthusiasts to visit areas outside Yala block one, to watch the elusive cat.
“We encourage people to go to other blocks of Yala, to allow animals to get used to safari jeeps,” said Riaz Cader Operations Executive, at Jetwing Eco.
“In 10-years time, perhaps the animals would be comfortable enough to allow jeeps at close quarters, like we see in Yala block one.”
Sightings in NE
When the military ended the decades-long ethnic conflict with Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009, the Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust headed to the north and east, to study leopards.
They were going by sightings and reports of displaced people, who encountered leopards as they return to their former houses. Some villagers were complaining that leopards had begun to prey on their cattle.
Watson said the need for coexistence between humans and leopards is inevitable, as the war allowed cats a fairly free reign to hunt for prey feral, as well as wild.
Findings of the north and east study are still in its early stages, but the region shows promise for holding leopard populations that could become visible for visitation, said Watson.
“The east coast, in particular, is promoted a lot for watching whales, dolphins and a bit of birds. I think there is room to see leopards. But first, people must regularly visit those areas, and encourage conservation of wilderness for such purposes.”
The Sri Lankan leopard, which is scientifically known as Panthera pardus kotiya, remains the top predator after the island broke-off from the Indian sub-continent thousands of years ago.
While the actual population in the post war area is not known, people have begun to move into traditional leopard areas to farm or raise cattle, which has triggered-off inevitable clashes.
Watson said that the WWCT has documented 59 leopards that have died over the past decade, with the real number expected to be higher. WWCT estimates 750-900 leopards within the country, based on targeted studies and extrapolation done for the IUCN’s Red List.
“With no big predator, the Sri Lankan leopard can only die through disease, conflict with prey and other leopards or being killed by humans.”
She said the “conflict” between man and animal, is sometimes over-hyped as people have been living in coexistence with wildlife for centuries in tropical Sri Lanka.
“It’s fairly accepted that if a farmer grazes cattle close to or often in jungle areas, he is bound to lose one or two cattle. It is the price that is paid for free range fodder. So coexistence is possible and ‘conflict’ as a term must be more carefully used.”
In some parts of the south, wildlife enthusiasts have donated steel cages to cattle farmers to secure their animals against wandering leopards.
With each steel pen costs around 60,000, privately-held Sri Lankan conglomerate John Keells Holdings and its partners, plans to donate around a dozen units to cattle farmers over the coming months said Chitral Jayatilake who heads JKH eco tourism projects.
The absence of leopards, potentially a key stone species might allow certain animals to grow in numbers, especially herbivores and could upset the natural balance.
Update of leopard sightings
Meanwhile, the Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust has once again begun an update of their data on leopard sightings in Yala block one.
“Going by the regular sightings, photographs of leopards in block one, we think the animal population numbers have remained more or less the same over the past decade,” said Kittle.
As Yala block one remains among the top destinations in the world to see leopards, Kittle said it’s important that wildlife enthusiasts keep monitoring other leopard locations.
“While Yala gets all the attention, we may never know how leopard populations are surviving in other parts. For that, it’s important that people keep visiting areas outside block one.”