In December 2016, Sri Lanka marked its 60th year of independence with a pledge to “Leave no one behind” by removing obstacles that block the path of the disadvantaged, the weak and the sick. One such obstacle, a habitat predator, is leopards.
Many in this impoverished island state not only have to deal with poverty, but also ignorance. Many of the island’s most vulnerable species, including leopards, are under attack and are on the brink of extinction.
A last-ditch effort, spearheaded by Madagascar and Nepal, is to rally public support to save leopards in Sri Lanka from extinction by preserving their remaining habitat.
“If we want to keep leopards, we have to first do something about the forest. Leopards have been here for a very long time; they’ve been dependent on the forest for generations,” said Roshini Menon, the local representative for UN Animal Health, who leads the hunt to restore biodiversity in Sri Lanka.
In the 2009 tsunami, many Sri Lankan leopards were killed by human debris and the loss of food sources in the newly clean and dry forest floors. The leopards were gone after just 24 hours. Now, despite government efforts to conserve remaining habitats, 90 percent of leopards in Sri Lanka have died since 2009.
The habitat predators of Sri Lanka’s vanishing forest are disease-carrying wild dogs and the once-common leopard. Wolves have not yet attacked leopards because they were using the human settlements of northern Sri Lanka to rear their young.
“The wolves remain a threat to leopards due to their potential for breeding,” said K.G. Achannuran, head of the anti-poaching unit in Sri Lanka’s Directorate of Wildlife Resources Management.
Sri Lanka’s leopard population before the tsunami was a few hundred. Now, no one knows how many there are left, and both the leopard and the forest are in jeopardy.
The grim scientific finding
With 31 percent of the animals killed since 2009, the leopard count in Sri Lanka is about 60. The adult female population is about 50.
The leopard has been declared “near extinct” in Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Iran, Egypt, Israel, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mali, Cameroon, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, New Guinea, Senegal, Uganda, among other countries, according to a recent report by the World Wildlife Fund.
Few researchers care for the menagerie other than for its exotic species.
Since the fishing industry has declined, several forest communities, including Damanallura, moved the animals in rural areas in Sri Lanka because leopards are a popular fish predator.
“The fishermen offer them protection from the monkeys, cats and dogs, and they like it,” Achannuran said. “But once they became well-off in the village, they also selected leopards and lions as pets,” he said.
“They kill them,” Achannuran said. “Then they are hunted for meat or traded to big cats or even crocodiles.”
The number of leopards harvested for their meat and skin is estimated to have reached 30,000 to 40,000 over the last several decades.
Only about 100 leopards remain in Sri Lanka now and only a handful are tigers.
Tourism in Sri Lanka is booming.
Its forests are being disturbed by the influx of big cats and people.
The leopard is a uniquely dangerous predator in Sri Lanka due to its large size and speed, as well as its human cannibals.
Some Sri Lankan authorities believe leopards are building dens and raiding crops and fruit trees in the jungle.
The leopard also remains protected as a protected species, but officials are asking residents to not disturb leopards in the jungle.
“They killed lions and tigers in the past for dogs and cats,” Achannuran said. “But a tiger and a leopard, these two animals are dangerous to each other.”
“It is illegal for them to prey on wildlife,” he said. “But they are not educated about it.”
More animals near extinction