Leopards are one of Sri Lanka’s most beloved national animal groups. A big cat seen leaping through the trees in an Indian orchid range, for example, is more than likely a leopard: almost all have blue eyes and appear as white in the daytime than they do at night. However, the leopard’s healthy population in the country has come under assault by the growing popularity of a fast-developing tourism industry in the northeast, where the new Taj Mahal of monasteries, temples and trekking trails are anchored in a world carved out of green.
Most forested in the west, Sri Lanka is one of the world’s leading leopard habitats. Mangoes, tamarind, medicinal plants and tree lines in the northeast form some of the best wildlife corridors, making it very difficult for leopards and their prey, pigs, goats and deer, to move. The surrounding wetlands also provide food, including the highly prized lake trout.
Then there are Sri Lanka’s coral reefs, particularly those with white sand beaches that attract the many tourist dollars generated by the country’s conservative tourist industry.
“The beaches have their own ‘leopard people’,” explains Anuradha Palekar, director of Wildlife Institute of Sri Lanka. “Leopards get trapped in the villas’ backyards, at times their homes are literally stoned and they have to get out or die. These owners often don’t consider the leopard is a protected animal and require strict legislation to protect them. The large pets often end up in debt trap, being abandoned in nature as the owners are too ashamed to give them up, or resort to poachers. Some even decide to ‘help’ them, but finding another home for leopards in the system can be very difficult.”
Coral reefs, however, pose another threat. Most Sri Lankan fishermen use junk to catch fish, taking bait from a coral reef. Decades ago, the hunters saw the leopards near their nets and mistook them for prey. For these fishermen, using a fishing line in full tiger, an echo — a quick ring — is necessary to hook the leopard. This technique was successful in catching two such big cats caught in three separate incidents in 2015.
In all such cases, the farmers who call on the men and women to catch the leopards are aware of the danger involved and give them adequate compensation. The leopards are released safely in the wild after being neutered, dehorned and vaccinated. This saving of the leopards is a protected right.
Leopards in the northeast, however, are far more endangered than their southern cousins. The most recent recorded death of a tiger in the country occurred in 1958. Last year, however, a record number of leopards died, possibly from snakebites. A leopard was found dead in a supermarket bag at the Colombo Stock Exchange, and hundreds of leopards were poisoned by cyanide so that white prawns could be sold in the local market.
Tigers and leopards in Sri Lanka are protected under the country’s Wildlife Conservation Act (1936). Under these provisions, the animals should be protected during their entire lives. But there are no laws on how to safeguard the leopards, which are now likely less than half their former population size.
The attacks against tigers and leopards are increasingly common, making conservation of Sri Lanka’s leopards even more pressing. It is time to take action. Citizens from all over the world should support the fight to protect this species.