Deplorable future of endangered Sri Lankan leopards

Sri Lanka is second to none in terms of its biodiversity and fascinating nature. Among all other amazing animals, Sri Lanka’s wildlife crown jewel is the Sri Lankan leopard. Apart from the leopard, Sri Lanka is also providing shelter to other wildcats including jungle cats, fishing cats, and rusty-spotted cats that can be found in Sri Lankan wilderness. 

There had been a remarkably large number of leopards in the jungle of Sri Lanka before colonial era, with the arrival of British colonial rulers the pristine rainforest cover of the island commenced to declines in order to make the room for plantations, in other words, the living habitat of the wild animals such as leopards and other felids were encroached by the British planters. To make it worse, hunting became a popular sport activity among the wealthy British people, also the result was worse than expected and the number of wild animal considerably reduced within a short period of time. As a result of that around latter part of 19s, most wild animals are listed as endangered animals on the island. The killing sphere was slowdown as hunting terminated and wildlife reserves stated in the early 19s, however, the animal killing is still reported in several places in Sri Lanka.

Leopards were known to have a high distribution range throughout the world, but now they solely confined to some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and they recorded in small numbers in the countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Indochina, Malaysia, and China. Leopard in Sri Lanka is endemic species and they are being known as the biggest leopards in the world. The Sri Lankan leopard is the largest of the four wild cat species found in Sri Lanka, and the apex mammalian predator on the island. Today the population of leopard is estimated to be around 800. Poaching and habitat degradation have been identified as the main reasons for the declining number of Leopards. According to the fauna flora act, leopard is declared as an endangered animal species in Sri Lanka and it is a protected animal.

Killing a leopard is a huge offence, which causes heavy fine and imprisonment, still, there is an isolated incident in Sri Lanka in which the animals being killed for the skin and canine teeth. Most of the times they are found while they trapped in snares and traps, gunshot injuries are also a major reason for deaths among the leopards. One unfortunate incident reported in 2009 from Sinharaja region, where first-ever black leopard was found on the island, at the time of discovery it was dead and had been a fatality of a trap. Recently (26th of March,2020) again a black leopard had been trapped in a snare near Nallathanniya and later died due to the injuries. The number of leopard kills seems to be on an increasing for the last few years. 

These are few incidents being recorded in the past and there are probably many such incidents, which not disseminated in the country. These incidents show the immediate consideration of the government in order to protect these amazing creatures before them extinct forever.

The leopard has been protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance since 1964, the first wild cat to be given legal protection. In 1993 amendment, leopards were titled as fully protected species. The last amendment to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance in 2009 moved leopards into the newly established “strictly protected species” category. It is an offense to main, injure, harm or kill a leopard, or to keep a live animal, a dead body or any part of a body. It is also an offense to sell or expose to sell a dead body or any part or trade in live animals. The offenses expand to the use of any implement, instrument or substance to commit any of these offenses. Furthermore, all these offenses are deemed to be cognizable offenses, that is, the offender can be arrested without a warrant. They are, in addition, deemed to be non-bailable offenses as well.

It is seen that there are quite strong legal actions to conserve the leopard in Sri Lanka. However, it is the enforcement of these provisions which is still the weakness. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) which is entrusted with the protection of all animals and plants and a large number of protected areas declared under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, is severely under resourced according to them.There are leopards in both the low-country wet and dry zones, and in the hill country up to the highest elevations, with a scientifically studied population in Horton Plains National Park itself. There is some evidence of the leopard abundance in Knuckles mountain range also. Most of these forest areas in Sri Lanka are not scientifically studied, therefore real population in each area not discovered yet accurately. Most of researchers confined their research in the national parks and already protected areas but still all these human-leopard conflict incidents recorded near the human settlements which were outside the protected areas. This is a huge issue when apply leopard conservation and management implications and policy making. Hence it is needed to consider the populations of the leopards within and outside the protected areas and to have conservation and management actions to cover both these populations. With our “Felidae Carnivora Project” we will be identified these important habitats which is very crucial to survival of Sri Lankan leopards. On a global context the leopard is classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN and is listed on CITES (Convention in the Trade in Endangered Species): Appendix I. It is said that there are less than 1,000 leopards remaining in the wilds of Sri Lanka. Furthermore, the subspecies found in Sri Lanka is an endemic one, found nowhere else on Earth.

But a number of leopards continue to be killed each year, both deliberately and coincidentally, taking a toll on the already low population. This animal is included in the National Red Data List as a threatened species within Sri Lanka. It is very obvious that time is fast running out for this appealing creature and therefore urgent management action is needed to save this unique population for the next generations. The reasons for rapid declining of leopard population in Sri Lanka referred as due to habitat loss and fragmentation, and hunting/poaching for trade and due to pest control. Skins and canines are widely traded in Sri Lanka, as the canine is worn as a talisman by some village folks as it is said to bring about good fortune, while certain parts of the animal is eaten or applied to traditional medicine. Unfortunately there some records of over six specimens of leopards being poached in areas around national parks which were well protected by the DWC.

Therefore it is really important to aware about the present population trends, ecology and human-leopard conflict in Sri Lanka. Scientific ecological research, studies will be the key to answer this issues in the future to conserve this valuable living creatures in the Island. 

Chathuranga Dharmarathne

Senior Field Biologist

Felidae Carnivora Project

Sri Lanka

PC-Chathuranga Dharmarathne