Archive for the ‘Leopards’ Category

Don’t frighten leopards out of existence

January 31, 2018
Experts urge care in human collisions with top predator

Published on SundayTimes on 14.01.2018

Last week’s commotion over a cornered leopard reinforces the need to handle such encounters with care to prevent an escalation into intense leopard-human conflict, warn experts Andrew Kittle and Anjali Watson.

A few close encounters with leopards occur every year in the hill country; last week’s incident was at the Panmore tea estate in Hatton.

There are many versions of the story but according to local sources it began when a female tea plucker came upon the leopard at night while it was feeding on a dog it had killed. Caught by surprise, the leopard sprang past her, causing minor injuries. It withdrew to a nearby forest patch while fellow estate workers and management came to her aid.

Estate workers called the police and the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) officers to the scene and wanted the animal captured immediately.

Free-ranging leopards are not tranquillised except as a last resort as the pain inflicted by the dart could frighten the leopard into leaping out of range of capture and because the animal could die if drugs to reverse the tranquilliser were not administered in time, according to DWC chief veterinary surgeon Dr. Tharaka Prasad. The wildlife officers explained this to the estate workers and promised to set up a cage trap to capture the animal in days to come. The workers wanted the DWC to seize the leopard then and there and take it away.

The mob become unruly and began trying to chase the leopard away. The cornered leopard, in fear of its life, sprang out of its hideout and in its attempts to escape injured five estate workers. A few days later, the DWC set up a cage with bait but the leopard has not visited the area since then, perhaps more traumatised by the incident than the people who were injured.

Leopard researcher Anjali Watson emphasised that leopards always try to avoid encounters with people. “If the tea plucker made a noise, making her approach clear, the leopard would have stealthily retreated, avoiding the encounter,” she said.

“Almost all the leopard incidents in these areas happen due to the animal being surprised or when mobs try to chase a leopard. “There have been no incidents of a leopard stalking a human with intent to kill,” Ms. Watson said.

Through the Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Ms. Watson and Dr. Kittle have been conducting research on leopards in the hill country since 2011 as understanding their ecology is the key to protecting them.

They have observed how leopards live outside protected areas and have adapted well to living even in habitats close to human settlements. Leopards inhabit a wide variety of landscapes in the hill country, from large intact forest swaths to small (less than 5 sq km) isolated patches of heavily degraded secondary forest.

“The leopard is amazingly adaptable and can live in a wide variety of habitats given an adequate prey base and some sort of vegetative cover,” Dr. Kittle said.

In the hill country, leopards roam a range of landscapes including established and regenerating forests, forest plantations of eucalypt and pine, tea estates and areas near human settlements.

Most of the national parks of the country are within the dry/arid zone; the montane (mountain) zone currently has only one declared park (Horton Plains), one Strict Natural Reserve (Hakgala) and three other protected areas of lesser status (Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, Pedro Forest Reserve and the Knuckles Range (currently undergoing status change).

Although some small forest reserves are interspersed throughout the zone these areas have not been considered wildlife refuges, let alone leopard habitat.

Large tracts of wilderness in the sub-montane and montane zones were cleared and cultivated into coffee and tea plantations in the late 1800s under British rule. This greatly reduced the extent of forest cover but higher montane forests (higher than 1900m) still exist and are used by leopards.

Sadly, more and more highland forests are being cleared for agriculture, forcing leopards to use areas closer to human settlements. It is mostly the males, particularly the young ones, that roam around while females prefer to stay in the forest patches, according to the researchers.

Leopards have learned to become elusive creatures to avoid encounters with humans. One sign of this is that they are active at night, particularly outside protected areas., There are two spikes of activity: early in the morning as leopards retreat to their hideout forest patches, and just after nightfall, when they come out to look for prey and mark their territories. In the highlands, this nocturnal behaviour is even more pronounced in comparison to dry zone study sites. Researchers warn estate workers to be extra careful at these times and to make enough noise when approaching leopard habitat to avert unexpected encounters.

When there is an incident people want the animal relocated but translocating wildlife, especially top predators such as the leopard, should only be used as a last resort, Dr. Kittle said. Wild animals, particularly higher order mammals such as the leopard, know how to survive in their native habitat from the experience of having grown up there.

Transfer to an alien habitat usually results in the inability of the animal to adapt to its new surroundings. A new prey base, new competitors and the potential of a new climate can have tremendously adverse effects on survival potential.

Moving a leopard from the hills to Yala, the Knuckles Range or even to Horton Plains, for instance, is unlikely to be successful given these areas already have resident animals who would not welcome a new arrival. Well-documented Indian studies show that translocating leopards is unsuccessful, with high leopard mortality, Dr. Kittle said.

Despite knowing this the DWC is sometimes forced to take the difficult option of translocation to prevent the leopard being killed by worried residents.

Ms Watson recalled an incident that shows the difficulties faced by wildlife officials. A leopard fell into a well in Nawalapitiya in 2011; the researchers and wildlife officers wanted it rescued and released into nearby forest patches but local villagers vehemently protested. It was not easy for wildlife officials to find a suitable alternative habitat as leopards, especially males, are territorial, and introducing a stranger into another’s territory could result in fights that could be fatal. The loser might be forced to find living space elsewhere and could stray into more populated areas, instigating conflict with humans.

Ultimately, the researchers and wildlife officers selected the Kandapola forest reserve in Nuwara Eliya. An adult male leopard had been killed after having been caught in a snare there some months previously so the researchers felt the area was available for another male to claim it as its territory.

Most people want such animals rescued and to survive – a praiseworthy attitude that has allowed Sri Lanka to still have so much wildlife within its tiny borders – yet often they do not want them in their backyards even though these backyards are, in fact, forest.

Older villagers who are used to living together with wildlife are usually willing to allow a leopard to remain in its habitat nearby: it is often newcomers, formerly from urban areas, who are unwilling to live in co-existence. The Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust and wildlife department conduct community awareness programmes in border settlements and tea estate communities to help reduce human/animal conflict.

“You cannot conserve leopards by restricting them only to protected areas. Protecting their habitats and co-existence will decide this magnificent creature’s future,” Ms Watson pointed out.

Plantation companies are supportive of protecting biodiversity in their estates, she said. The WWCT team conducts its research work from the Dunkeld Conservation Station, which was set up in partnership with the Resplendent Ceylon/Dilmah Conservation and sits within the Dilmah tea estate, Dunkeld, in the Dickoya area.

“This partnership is an example of the positive attitude the tea management companies and private estate owners in the region have towards leopard conservation in the highlands. “It is through such collaborative partnerships and working together with these estate management and the workers that the conservation of Sri Lanka’s highland leopard can occur,” Ms Watson said.

International wildcat experts to meet in Sri Lanka

November 15, 2015

Published on SundayTimes on 01.11.2015 –

An international summit on Asian wildcats begins tomorrow in Mount Lavinia as local concerns rise over the number of leopards – Sri Lanka’s most charismatic wild cat – killed in the span of a few weeks, some through reckless driving.

Sri Lanka is home to four wild- cats: leopards, fishing cats, jungle cats and rusty spotted cats all of which are threatened species.

According to the National Red List on Threatened Fauna and Flora, the jungle cat is “near threatened” while the other species are “endangered”.

“As predators, these species are of potentially profound importance to the ecosystems of which they are a part and it is only armed with knowledge of their behaviour and ecology that we can implement effective conservation and management strategies to ensure their long-term survival,” said Dr. Andrew Kittle of the Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust (WWCT), ahead of the symposium aimed at sharing research knowledge on wildcats.

The two-day Symposium of South Asian Wild Cats Past and Present will bring together local, regional and international scientists and students to present their work and discuss their findings.

The main objective is to highlight current research. “An important offshoot of this symposium is to identify knowledge gaps that require attention and can be targeted for further/future study and increase collaboration between local and international universities and researchers,” the organisers, the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka (WNPS), said.

The symposium will also highlight this country’s palaeobiodiversity heritage by also focusing on the big cats such as lions and tigers that roamed the jungles of Sri Lanka in the past.

Few scientific studies have been done on the cats of Sri Lanka and the symposium is also aimed at encouraging and establishing a Sri Lankan research base linking international scientists, universities and wildcat lovers, both local and foreign, to conduct research on the small cats of Sri Lanka.

The fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrina) has partially webbed toes which enable it effectively to hunt in aquatic systems but does it only live near water? The jungle cat (Felis chaus) has large, tufted ears which allow it to hear the movements of rodents in the grass and pounce, but what else does it eat? The beautiful rusty spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus) is the smallest wild cat in the world, but where is it found and what are the threats to its survival?

In order to answer these questions, and many more, researchers are working hard to study these elusive species in the wild and their findings will be shared during the sessions of symposium.

A number of internationally acclaimed scientists studying wild cats are expected to attend the symposium. Among them is renowned scientist Dr. David Macdonald, who has pioneered research on the social ecology of carnivores and is founder and Director of Oxford University’s illustrious Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU).

The symposium will include four sessions: “Cats of the Past”, chaired by Professor Lars Werdelin of the Swedish Museum of Natural History; “Big Cats of South Asia”, chaired by Dr. Kittle; “Small Cats of South Asia” chaired by Dr. Jim Sanderson, founder of the Small Cat Conservation Alliance; and “Cats of Sri Lanka” chaired by Dr. Sriyanie Miththapala and University of Colombo Professor Devaka Weerakoon.

For more information about attending the symposium, go to

Wire trap kills another Hill Country leopard

September 28, 2015

Adding to the increasing number of leopard deaths, an adult male, more than 7 feet long, was found dead in Nuwara Eliya, early this week, on September 21, having fallen prey to a wire trap.

The trap had been set up in Toppass village bordering the Piduruthalagala Forest Reserve and was meant to protect the agricultural lands from wild boar.

Wildlife enthusiast Kasun Pradeepa who saw the body of the animal around 9 a.m. on the day it was discovered said the animal would have died around six that same morning.

This death comes even before the dust had settled on the Yala incident, where a speeding vehicle killed a female leopard inside the National Park.He said the snare had tripped around the leopard’s neck and death was either due to suffocation or the snare had snapped the animal’s neck.

Wire traps are known to be the number one killer of the elusive Hill Country leopard. In 2011, a leopard met the same fate in an area close to Toppas. Once the animal gets caught it struggles to break free and this worsens the situation and the animal dies of injuries to the internal vital organs.

“The Hill country is home for a viable leopard population. But wire traps pose a big problem although they are not aimed at killing leopard,” said Anjali Watson who is known for conducting research, along with Andrew Kittle on the Hill Country leopard.

“Wire traps are mainly set up for wild boar that comes to feed on farm lands. Wild boar is the leopard’s main prey, so they follow their path and become easy prey to the traps,” she said.

Unfortunately the land-use pattern of the Hill Country sometimes increases the conflict between leopards and humans, pointed out the researcher.

The Hill country has lots of small forest patches with tea estates in between. So the leopards often use these tea estates to cross from one forest patch to another or sometimes even make it their habitat, thereby making it vulnerable.
(M.R.) Published on SundayTimes on 27.09.2015

A male leopard was found dead in Nuwara Eliya, having fallen prey to a wire trap. (c) Kasun Pradeepa

A male leopard was found dead in Nuwara Eliya, having fallen prey to a wire trap. (c) Kasun Pradeepa

Top predator in our jungles is no match for human cruelty

September 23, 2015

Leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) is the top predator in Sri Lanka’s wilderness. But proving that human is more cruel killer, another leopard was killed at Nuwaraeliya on 21st September getting caught into a wire trap setup on boarders of Toppass village located adjacent to Piduruthalagala Forest Reserve – not too far from the town. This hamlet has lots of agricultural lands and it is believe that the trap aimed at wild boar where the leopard had fallen victim to it.

Wildlife Enthusiast Kasun Pradeepa that witnessed the body of the leopard says it is a matured male leopard that is more than 6 ft long. The body was found fresh and not stiff even around 9am, indicating the unlucky big cat get caught in the trap early morning. Kasun says the snare was tripped around leopad’s neck that could suffocate the animal to death or break the neck.

This period is proved to be not good for top predator in our jungles as the Nuwaraeliya leopard death was reported even before settling of the dust of the Yala incident where a speeding vehicle killed a female leopard inside National Park.

The wire traps become the number one threat, particularly to the elusive Hill Country leopards.  Visit the link to read 2011 article published on SundayTimes about the Hill Country leopards that fallen victim to wire traps regularly. In June, 2011 the leopard got killed was also from Piduruthalagala Forest Reserve.

Hillcountry leopard killed in N.Eliya (c) Kasun Pradeepa

Hillcountry leopard killed in N.Eliya (c) Kasun Pradeepa

Yala was no sanctuary for this leopard

August 30, 2015
More animals die so that we can ride in comfort 

In more sad news from Yala, the body of a female leopard was found on Friday inside Yala National Park itself, on the verge of the Jamburagala road. The body had no apparent scars but the postmortem revealed the leopard died due to a broken neck (spinal code). There was evidence that some elephants had passed through the area in which the leopard was lying but it was unlikely that the death could have been due to an attack by elephants as adult leopards never confront elephants.

It is probable that the leopard died after being hit by a speeding vehicle, Wildlife Conservation Department (DWC) Director General H.D. Ratnayake said. No culprit has been nabbed yet but there will be an investigation about the death of this leopard, he said.

The female leopard killed by Hit and Run vehicle inside Yala National Park

Female leopard killed by Hit and Run vehicle inside Yala (c) Janakafb Janu

Yala is the busiest national park in Sri Lanka with its key attraction being the leopards. The safari jeep drivers and other visitors always want to see a leopard so any leopard sighting is swiftly communicated through mobile phones to other jeeps that then flock to the area for a glimpse of the prized big cat.

The park is closed every day at 6 p.m., so jeeps that go deep into the jungle without a sense of the time, speed their way toward the exit at closing time, and this could lead to accidents like this. This is not the first leopard killed by speeding vehicles inside Yala National Park. In 2011, a leopard was killed by a speeding vehicle and since then, several animals too has been reported killed by speeding vehicles.

Mobile phones are a big factor in these Mad Max-type situations in Yala as they are used to pass on the message of leopard sightings. Heeding requests from conservationists, the DWC, in collaboration with mobile phone operators, in experimenting with cutting off service inside the park, Mr. Ratnayake revealed.

The network was switched off on alternate weeks this month. The leopard death occurred during a time when phones were active, according to local sources, indicating that a total blackout could improve the situation to some extent. It is, however, the responsibility of visitors not to allow the jeep to speed up for the sighting of a leopard. Jeep drivers speed in order to give tourists a better sighting, which will mean a bigger tip, so ask them not to speed up, conservationists say.

Local sources say that as many as five leopards have died this year in Yala due to various causes. A leopard was killed a few months ago in the buffer zone in Dambewa after being caught in a wire trap. The remains of another leopard was found near Rathmalwewa in Yala about a month ago.

Earlier this week a tourist bus hit a herd of deer on the Kirinda-Yala road, reinforcing concerns that the road has become a death-trap for wildlife as its newly-carpeted surface allows motorists to speed. No carcasses or wounded deer could be seen on the road after Wednesday’s accident but blood on the road indicated that several animals could be badly injured.

It was dark at the time of the accident and the wounded animals sought refuge in the jungle. Conservationists worry that even if these deer do not die as a direct result of their injuries the wounds could become infected and make the animals less mobile,making them easy prey for predators.

Last drop of water - trying to quench thirst of dying deer hit on Kirinda - Palatupana - Yala road on 21st of Aug

Last drop of water – trying to quench thirst of dying deer hit on Kirinda – Palatupana – Yala road on 21st of Aug (c) Sampath Galappaththi

On August 21, a deer was hit and killed by a motorist who sped off without waiting to be identified, leaving the animal suffering by the side of the road. It was the ninth deer known to have been killed in the past three months since that stretch was resurfaced to provide a comfortable ride for park visitors, local resident Sampath Galappaththi said.

The fact that large animals like deer are being killed on the road indicates smaller animals and birds are being killed in larger numbers, unnoticed.

Mr. Galappaththi revealed that carcasses of nightjars, a nocturnal bird, have become a common sight on the road.
Mr. Ratnayake said he was aware of the problem. He said that as the road comes under the Road Development Authority, the DWC would hold talks with the authority to find a solution. In the meantime, he urged motorists to be careful when driving on roads bordering on or passing through through wilderness areas.

Drought break for wildlife
The Yala National Park will be closed for one month from September 7. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) announced this week that Yala, the country’s mostly visited national park, is closing during the height of the drought to ease the pressure on the animals from visitors. The break also gives an opportunity to repair infrastructure in the park. The tradition of closing the park at this time started in colonial days when the park was a game reserve providing hunting opportunities. 

Another Black Leopard killed in Deniyaya

October 16, 2013
The tragic killing of another black leopard highlights the need for greater conservation – By Malaka Rodrigo 

Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’ refers to a black panther, Bagheera. This was really a black leopard and even though Badheera was fictitious, black leopards do exist. But are their days numbered in Sri Lanka, is the question that many wildlife enthusiasts pose.

Brutal end: The carcass of the black leopard. Photo Credit: Rukshan Jayewardene 

Another black leopard faced a brutal death in Deniyaya a few days back. Its decomposing body was recovered from a forest patch close to Handford Estate, in the village of Thalapalakanda.

Veterinary surgeon Dr.Tharaka Prasad who conducted the post-mortem said the animal would have died an agonising death after succumbing to internal wounds sustained on getting caught in a wire snare. Poachers had cut off both its forelimbs and a large portion of flesh from its neck area. Even the teeth and claws of the remaining limbs of this black beauty had not been spared.

Wildlife officers were however puzzled that no attempt was made to skin the animal as its coat would have fetched a high price. They believe the animal would have got caught in a trap set for wild boars. But conservationist and leopard researcher, Rukshan Jayawardane who went to the site with Dr. Prasad said the trap may have been set up deliberately to snare the black leopard – or other leopards that frequent the area. He has urged police to find the culprits. There is a local belief that leopard flesh taken from an area that cannot be licked by the animal is good for asthma patients and wearing its claws and teeth a sign of bravery.

Kokila Harindra, wildlife range officer of Kaluthota who was alerted by Deniyaya police said villagers had complained about the stench from a rotting carcass of a leopard. He said the villagers had not spotted the black leopard before. The animal was a mature male leopard about 7 foot long, Mr. Harindra said.

Dense forest: Safer habitat for rare black leopard

In 2009, a black leopard was entrapped in a wire trap in the vicinity of Deniyaya. A few years ago there was was a report of the death of another black leopard in the area of Sinharaja.  Dr. Prasad said in the past six years the Department of Wildlife Conservation received reports of 16 leopard deaths in and around Sinharaja.

The fact that of them three were black leopards means there could be more in the area, Dr.Prasad said adding that they were initiating a study on these rare species. Childers Jayawardane, a wildlife officer wrote about sighting a black leopard as far back as 1948 in Yala Block III. He also recalled seeing another black leopard at Banawalkema 30 years later.

However, black leopard sightings have not been recorded recently in the dry zone, and it is believed that the darker environs of a dense forest helps the black leopard to survive, says Rukshan Jayawardane. Pointing out that there maybe more leopards outside the protected wildlife areas he pointed out that conservation programmes should encompass these areas too.

Anjali Watson – a leopard researcher who has studied leopards in the wet zone and the hill country says the biggest threat to leopards in general and the rare black species is the lack of protected areas in the wet zone and hill countries unlike in the dry zone. As a result habitat fragmentation, poaching and indirect snaring can go unnoticed.

She said black leopards even in other countries are found mainly in dense forest areas. The reason being the darker and more secluded habitat of rain forests allow a melanistic leopard to survive more easily and reproduce, passing on the recessive gene of melanism. In the dry zone where the habitat is more open they are less likely to survive into adulthood.

Who are these black beauties? 

The black leopard belongs to the same species of leopards found in Sri Lanka, scientifically known as Panthera pardus kotiya. This species has been tagged as ‘Endangered’ by Red List 2012.

What differentiates a black leopard from a normal leopard is its black coat that is a result of a condition called melanism where the dark-coloured pigment melanin in the skin develops. This is similar to the condition of an albino where the absence of melanin makes an animal lighter coloured. 

Zoologists say this is caused by a melanistic recessive gene and on close inspection the usual leopard spots are visible even on a black leopard. Scientists also say two leopards with normal coats have a one-in-four chance of producing a black-coated cub, if both mother and father have the recessive trait for melanistic form. Other big cats such as jaguars who have this melanistic form are commonly referred to as black panthers.

Published on 06.10.2013 on SundayTimes 

Jeep Drivers meet Environmentalists to find a solution to Yala Madness

April 15, 2012
A group of drivers who were present at last week’s forum

As the situation worsens in Yala  regarding Visitor and Jeep Driver misbehavior and Leopard-chasing, a short workshop titled “Visit Yala, Don’t Invade” was organized by Lakdasun, an internet-based conservation group (,  providing a platform for jeep drivers and activists to interact.  This workshop was unique in that it was initiated as a result of an invitation from the Jeep drivers of the Independent Yala Safari Jeep Drivers Association, who have now realized the need for change.

Dr. Rishani Gunasinghe who was actively involved in organizing the workshop said that  Lakdasun wanted to use the opportunity to the fullest to get the Driver’s corporation, so therefore, a “Business-oriented” approach rather than a “conservation-oriented” approach was employed when organizing this workshop. Rishani said that they tried to show the Drivers that they were there not to point fingers at them, but to show them what the current situation is doing to their business, what tourism operators expect in terms of service and visitor experience offered, how their service and hence their business can be improved, and thereby how they wanted to arrive at sustainable solutions for Yala TOGETHER WITH the Jeep Drivers.

In addition to the Lakdasun team, resource persons present were Rukshan Jayawardena, Vimukthi Weeratunga, and Nishad Wijetunga, who is the director of a leading travel agent. Giving the Key speech, Nishad told the Jeep Drivers, “Your business will soon be affected if the situation is not improved”. He explained that tourists indeed know what is going on inside the park due to the internet, that they are very vigilant on driver/tracker behavior, and as a result, close to 20% of tourists now ask NOT TO nclude Yala in their itineraries.

With data, Nishad stressed that tour companies don’t expect Drivers to somehow show leopards. Drivers commented that some Guides pressurize them to find leopards, but Nishad explained that it is not the Guides who bring them business but the tour companies, and Jeep Drivers have their own right to tell visitors and guides that they are not supposed to chase leopards, and that they have to adhere to speed limits.

Nishad also added that there might be a misconception that one can get bigger tips if one shows leopards, but this is not often the case because most tourists come on a budget and have already decided how much they will give as a tip. Thus most of the time, a leopard sighting will not change the tip, and besides, they will not blame the driver even if a leopard is not spotted because foreign tourists take sightings or non-sightings as their own luck.

Nishaad also said that tour companies give 70% of the visitors to Yala and also have an optional 2nd visit. This 2nd visit is now not been taken by the majority of the tourists and this has already impacted Jeep drivers.  He mentioned that this lost crowd is a blow to our tourism and will not come back unless they see a genuine change.

Rukshan Jayawardena and Vimukthi Weeratunga addressing the workshop said that the real wildlife experience is to track the animals and not by driving upon sighting tips received by mobile phones. Rukshan emphasized that it is the wildlife that should get the priority to live in a national park and all the other tourists activities should be secondary mentioning that leopards’ behavior in Yala is changing.  Rukshan and Vimukthi also led an active discussion with the Drivers in which they were given a chance a express their own views openly.  Drivers expressed their willingness to change, even have a cell phone ban, if they get an official order from the Authorities.They also requested uniforms, fair punishments for all when violations are found, and expressed hope that all the Drivers at Yala will join the association so that the service can be standardized. At present there are many Drivers who do not yet belong to the Association.

Mithila Somasiri who spearheaded the Lakdasun group said that Lakdasun also wanted to stress that the jeep drivers, trackers and visitors alike should play an important role in protecting what essentially brings direct benefits to all.  Mithila said visitors, inlcuding themselves, should  share an equal part of the blame for the current problems. Lakdasun is also trying to raise visitor awareness by an email campaign, and distributing posters to be placed in each Jeep for visitors to read before entering the park -this is to urge visitors not to chase leopards but to see other animals as well, with an aim enhancing visitor experience, provide better shutter chances, disperse traffic and ease pressure on Drivers and Trackers.   Larger versions of this poster have now been placed in and around the visitors center, ticket office, washrooms and bungalows, with the fullest corporation of the Wildlife Department. Visitors are urged to read these posters and see the variety Yala has to offer, and, most importantly, make a conscious effort to improve the situation inside Yala by NOT contributing to leopard chasing and speeding. “Let us visit Yala, not invade” , urges Lakdasun to all visitors of Yala.

Lakdasun says that this is merely a start and that they are planning to take the momentum ahead together with jeep drivers and others who are interested at providing a sustainable and lasting solution for Yala.

The unedited version of article published on 08.04.2012

Yala Jeep Driver Caught with Jumbo Placenta

April 15, 2012

Last week a Jeep Driver has been arrested for illegally taking out a jumbo placenta from the park. Acting upon a tip, the wildlife officers has stopped the vehicle at the exit of the park and found the jeep driver red handed. He was later produced before Tissamaharama court fined Rs.35,000.

Placenta known in Sinhala as ‘wede maha’ is the organ that connects the developing baby to the mother during the pregnancy. After giving birth, this falls off and it is said this placenta belongs to a she-elephant that had given birth on the previous night. The safari driver who went in as part of 3 vehicle convoy had seen it on sides of the road and picked it. Locals believe that the elephant placentas are having some characteristics to ease the labor pain and driver on his confession said he picked it to give it to his wife who is pregnant.

However, taking anything out from National Park is an offence and according to the law nobody is allowed to get down from the vehicles other than on the designated places marked for resting. Though it looks innocent to pick something that will otherwise be gone wasted, this kind of acts could set examples to carry out other offences, so environmentalists praise the Wildlife Officers who had came out taking action against the culprit.

On the other hand, the elephant that had given few hours ago should have been in the vicinity and getting down from vehicle and picking it could easily irritate the elephant herd. Elephants are extra protective on their babies and the mother who could be still confused with her labor could easily create a dangerous situation even to the visitors who were travelling in this jeep.

It is said that the jeep was part of a 3 vehicle convoy that was overseen by a wildlife tracker. This jeep somehow managed to delay until the other vehicle where the tracker in got isolated, says sources from Yala National Park. According to the laws in national park, the vehicles should be accompanied by a wildlife tracker trained by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). However, due to lack of trackers and with increased number of vehicles on busy weeks in Yala, not all jeep is given individual trackers.

The Yala National Park Warden W.A.B. Indrajith said due to the misbehavior of some Jeep Drivers, these kind of incidents are getting common. Yala is being visited by about 400 vehicles on a busy weekend and speeding up of the vehicles with the aim to have a leopard sighting is also become a big problem. However he said majority behaves well, but the part authorities are trying their best to take actions against those who do not abide to the rules. The park warden also accepted that there are few trackers who need to be disciplined and they will not be tolerant on any culprit.

However, some visitors have observed this senior Jeep Driver few days after been released and calls that he should be banned from the park for a period of time as a punishment.

Leopard killing: no investigation yet

Six months ago, the carcass of a young leopard was found inside Yala. A post-mortem confirmed the cause of the death was a road accident, while wildlife officials said the animal was apparently killed by a speeding vehicle. The Department of Wildlife Conservation had promised an investigation, but there has been no follow-up action.

“It is possible the culprit is an influential person and that the Department of Wildlife Conservation is reluctant to investigate,” said conservationist Rukshan Jayawardane. The activist said that Department of Wildlife Conservation was not functioning as before, and lacked direction as there was no permanent Director General. Former Wildlife Director-General Chandrawansa Pathiraja was dismissed a year ago and he has not been replaced.

This is the unedited version of article published on 08.04.2012


Lanka’s leopard poster wins international award

November 22, 2011
But tourists are less than satisfied with the overall safari experience – By Malaka Rodrigo
A poster showing a pair of Sri Lanka leopards has been named Best Poster for the South Asia Region in an international competition. The poster was created and submitted by Sri Lanka Tourism for the Vettor Giusti Tourism Poster Competition, which is held once in two years to mark the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) General Assembly sessions.

The winning posters will be on display in the entrance hall of the UNWTO building in Madrid, Spain. Sri Lanka Tourism has launched a campaign under the banner, “Refreshingly Sri Lanka”, leveraging on the country’s natural wealth and beauty. The content of the campaign falls into eight categories, based on the eight letters that spell “Sri Lanka.” As a tourism destination, the country can boast of a wide range of wildlife – from the leopard and the sloth bear to the elephant and the blue whale – all encompassed in a relatively small geographical area, the campaign points out.

Sri Lanka has the potential to become the “Wildlife Wonder of Asia” as long as the country’s tourism potential is properly tapped, say conservationists. Feedback from visitors suggest that this is not happening.

Answering a recent survey questionnaire, tourists said they were “satisfied” with the wildlife experience in game reserves in general, but not with the “overall experience.” They cited setbacks such as a lack of knowledgeable guides, congestion in parks, and negative behaviour by jeep drivers who disturbed animals. They also mentioned park infrastructure deficiencies, such as inadequate visitor centres and unclean toilets. All these factors, they said, prevented them from describing their visit to Sri Lanka as “memorable.”

Tourists mentioned popular national parks in other countries where visitor numbers and conduct within parks are monitored.

In India, many of the tiger reserves have a daily quota for vehicles permitted inside, and strict rules on the number of vehicles allowed per route. In game reserves in South Africa, only a limited number of safari jeeps are allowed for each wildlife sighting, and only one vehicle at a time is permitted at an observation point. In Ruwanda, a maximum eight visitors at a time are allowed to observe the rare Mountain Gorillas.

The fact that all these tours are always fully booked attests to visitor satisfaction with the arrangements. The “sustainable tourism” lobby in Sri Lanka would like to see Sri Lanka pitched as a high-end conservation tourism destination, while avoiding the pitfalls of mass tourism. This would be economically beneficial and protective of the wildlife within the wildlife parks, they say. The Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau is working closely with conservationists to promote regulated, well-conducted wildlife tourism.

Vipula Wanigasekera, acting director-general of Sri Lanka Tourism, told the Sunday Times that research was being done to determine visitor capacity for Yala National Park, and that an action plan was being drawn up.

As a first step, Sri Lanka Tourism and other animal welfare groups are training Yala trackers in game reserve best practices, as observed in other tourism-dedicated countries. Activists say the Department of Wildlife Conservation needs to boost its resources and beef up its numbers in order to manage visitors. More trained guides are urgently needed, they say.

Published on SundayTimes on 20.11.2011

Hit-and-run leopard killing enrages animal lovers

November 22, 2011
Mobile phones and speeding vehicles are the latest enemies to invade animal territory.
Malaka Rodrigo reports
Visitors to wildlife parks have a responsibility to protect the wildlife they are so eager to see. Excessive eagerness, compounded with callous disregard for basic road safety rules and consideration for others, can result in the kind of hit and run tragedy that occurred recently when a speeding vehicle killed a leopard within the Yala wildlife sanctuary. Images of the roadkill shocked and enraged the public, and animal lovers in particular.The latest enemy to invade protected wildlife terrain is the mobile phone – a piece of technology visitors are increasingly using to alert other visitors when they have sighted a rare animal, usually a leopard.
Whenever a leopard is seen, mobile phones are plucked out and messages sent, and minutes or seconds later, convoys of speeding safari trucks and cars rush to the scene – a spectacle that belongs to crowded urban areas, not to a wildlife sanctuary.

The leopard that was found dead in Yala recently. Pic by Spencer Manuelpillai

Irresponsible vehicle owners who disturb animals and threaten their existence is a growing problem, and one that is tarnishing the genuine wildlife experience, animal lovers say.

On a “good day,” hundreds of vehicles can be seen heading into Yala, and they usually keep to routes known for leopard sightings. The instant a leopard is seen, mobile phones are plucked out, messages are conveyed, and the race is on.

Animal lovers are calling for a total ban on mobile phones within wildlife premises, or at least an order prohibiting mobile phone use by visitors. Activists have also called for the shutting off of mobile phone transmission towers in the neighbourhood of a sanctuary. They suggest that the transmission towers be switched off during sight-seeing peak hours, from 6:00 am to 9:00 am and from 3:00 pm – 6:00 pm.

Vimukthi Weeratunge of Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) is on the team that is working on an action plan for Yala.

He said even trackers were calling for regulation of the Yala transmission tower. Mobile phone operators have no problem with switching off transmission towers at designated times, he said, as long as the Telecommunication Regulation Commission (TRC) gives its approval. It is up to the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and Sri Lanka Tourism to follow up and see the matter through.

Vipula Wanigasekera, acting director-general of Sri Lanka Tourism, told the Sunday Times that mobile phone connectivity was vital inside a wildlife reserve in case of emergencies, and that awareness-raising and the promotion of proper “road” behaviour, was the answer.

Meanwhile, no action has so far been taken regarding the hit-and-run killing of the Yala leopard.

Tharindu Jayasinghe, secretary of the Yala Jeep Drivers’ Association, said it was unlikely that a driver of a safari vehicle registered with the organisation, was responsible. He believed the death was likely caused by visitors who had booked a Yala bungalow or set up camp inside the game reserve.

Others interviewed by the newspaper said the death could have been caused by vehicles arriving early that morning from Yala Block II.

Published on SundayTimes on 20.11.2011

Hit and run vehicle kills a leopard in Yala

November 6, 2011

The carcass of a young leopard was found near Patanangala on October 22, around 6.a.m. by a group of wildlife enthusiasts who had set out early to get a glimpse of the morning wildlife.

The body had not been touched by predators and was still warm at the time it was found with a wound visible on its side, raising suspicion that it could have been killed by a wild boar attack. However, the carcass was sent to Udawalawe for a post-mortem and it was revealed that the leopard in fact had been killed by a speeding vehicle inside the park.

The veterinary team that conducted the post-mortem found that the leopard’s ribs were smashed and its lungs damaged. Dr.Vijitha Perera who headed the team said that kind of injury could only be caused due to a collision with a speeding vehicle.

Leopards are the key attraction at Yala and sometimes it is overcrowded by tourists who visit the park mainly to get a glimpse of the elusive big cat. The tourists often spend long hours in the park to maximize the opportunity of leapord sightings. However, since there is a rule that vehicles should leave the park at 6.30 p.m., some vehicles make a last minute dash speeding towards the exit just in time. Wildlife officials believe that one such vehicle could have been the culprit behind this hit and run tragedy.

Leopard carcass photographed few minutes after it was found (c) Spencer Manuelpillai

But the fact that the leopard was found in the morning with its body still warm and untouched by predators such as mongoose and not even covered by ants, has many wildlife activists believe that the fatal accident would have happened just a couple of hours before it was discovered in the morning. “If it happened in the morning it won’t be difficult to trace those responsible as only a few vehicles are usually found in the park that early,” Rukshan Jayawardene of the Leopard Trust said.

Pointing out that the leopard was a young female around six months old, Mr. Jayawardene said losing a female in Yala endangered the species more than when losing a male. A male leopard mates with several females so the death of a female means losing about several cubs for Yala.

He said the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) should launch an investigation to find the culprits and to impose strict regulations about speed limits to curb such tragedies in the future.
It is well known that over-visitation is a huge problem at the Yala Park, especially since the end of the war. On some long weekends, there are over 150 vehicles driving visitors into the park. However due to the limited number of trained wildlife trackers it is difficult to assign a tracker for every jeep thus leaving room for reckless behaviour by visitors, wildlife activists point out.

Most of the visitors’ main aim is to see as many wildlife as possible and sometimes at their insistence the trackers are forced to comply resulting in speeding vehicles and traffic jams.

The increase in the number of enthusiasts whose main hobby is to click a leopard has also aggravated the situation. This hobby has its downside especially with the popularity of Facebook where photographs are shared encouraging others to take their own leopard shots. This has has already driven away genuine wildlife photographers. “We no longer visit Yala,” said wildlife photographer Namal Kamalgoda who was a fan of Yala about a decade ago. He said many wildlife lovers like him have stopped visiting Yala and are looking at other prospects.

Yala is also being promoted as a tourist destination by the Tourism Promotion Bureau. But wildlife lovers say that even foreign tourists would stop going to Yala if there isn’t a check on the unruly behaviour, mainly of local tourists.

Wildlife biologist Manori Gunawardane says the tourism industry should impose self regulation to control the situation in national parks like Yala. Simple measures such as not to employ a jeep driver who misbehaves too can make an impact say conservationists.

She said many jeep drivers and tour operators have not understood the real meaning of a wildlife experience and believe that it only boils down to taking a photograph of one wildlife sighting and then rushing to another. She also said targeting some parks as safari sites for one species or another has also endangered the tranquility of these nature reserves.

Commenting on over-visitation, DWC Director General H.D.Ratnayake said that they are opening other wildlife spots to ease the pressure on the popular sites. He said measures have been taken to strengthen the existing rules regarding speeding vehicles with moves to cancel the licences of those who do not adhere to the speed limits. He also said investigations are being carried out on the death of the leopard.

published on SundayTimes on 06/11/2011

Another hill-country leopard bites the dust

June 20, 2011
Villagers’ warning letter to Wildlife officers 5 days before goes unanswered – By Malaka Rodrigo
Snares have killed a number of Nuwara Eliya leopards in recent years and these death traps’ latest victim was reported from Pedro (Pidurutalagala) on June 13. This leopard was caught in the wire trap set up at the edge of the Pedro Forest Reserve, less than 500 metres from the Nuwara Eliya police station, according to eyewitnesses. The trap’s wires had tightened across the leopard’s belly when it attempted to break free, causing internal injuries to its vital organs, ultimately killing the beautiful animal.

Snares have become the worst death traps for hill-country leopards, but this was a preventable one, if Wildlife officers had taken prompt action, point out environmental activists. The incident had taken place at Gemunu Mawatha village bordering the Pedro Forest Reserve. Villagers enjoy sighting many animals that cross into their village, but in recent months, poaching has increased in the area even resulting in the death of a pair of rare barking deer, which were frequent visitors to the village, and of rabbits trapped in snares.

Even the villagers’ dogs have got entangled in these wire traps which mainly target wild boar. Therefore nature-loving villagers of Gemunu Mawatha Nature Society had sent a letter to the Wildlife Minister S.M. Chandrasena and the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) to take immediate action to stop this rampant poaching. In the letter sent on June 8, it was highlighted that wire traps used by poachers posed a serious danger to the leopards living in the Pedro Forest too.

But no action was taken, and five days later, on June 13, their worst fears came true. The villagers even named the two poachers who are active in the area and the villager who supports them, but still no action has been taken to date. “It was indeed preventable, if action was taken immediately,” said Dr. Janaka Gallangoda of the Nature Exploration & Protection Society of Nuwara Eliya (NEPS). These poachers are also said to have settled in an area of the Pedro Forest, which is a high security zone where the main Rupavahini Tower is located.

Dr. Gallangoda said that the illegal meat trade was thriving in Nuwara Eliya, indicating that poaching activities were on the rise. Trap guns and hakka patas (devices that explode in the mouth) are usually not used in Nuwara Eliya, due to the wet conditions.

Hence, snares and electrocution have become the main tools of killing animals – mainly wild boar and Sambur. Snares are cheap to set up and are therefore popular among poachers. Three-wheeler brake cables are used to set up these wire traps.

Activists point out that WildLife officers or Police could easily trace the culprits on this evidence, but inaction by the law encourages poachers to continue with their illegal activities. Meanwhile WildLife Department Director General Chandrawansa Pathiraja said that information regarding the Nuwara Eliya leopard’s death had not reached him to date.

He said if the incident occurred only about 500 metres from the town, the leopard’s death should have been notified to the WildLife regional office and it is indeed a matter to investigate why no action has been taken so far.

Second Leopard shot dead in Giritale

Another large leopard was shot dead in Giritale Wildlife Sanctuary, making the number of big cat casualties of the week to two. The leopard is said to be a 7-foot long large mature beast. Two suspects have been arrested and the leopard’s carcass sent to Giritale for the post-mortem. According to regional reports, the poachers intended to sell the leopard’s skin for a large sum of money.

This has been published on SundayTimes on 19.06.2011 

Kilinochchi leopard caught in snare rescued by wildlife officers

May 4, 2011

Snares are the worst death traps for Sri Lankan leopards and their latest would-have-been victim is from Kilinochchi. This leopard was lucky to survive due to the timely and brave action by the wildlife officers of Vavuniya. As soon they received the message, the officers had rushed to the site in Kilinochchi.

They found the leopard in an exhausted state after trying to free itself from the snare. Usually when a leopard gets caught in a snare, the wire tightens around its crotch area damaging the vital internal organs such as the kidneys.

A leopard has to be usually sedated before anyone can get close to it, however, the wildlife veterinarian of the region was engaged in another duty, so there was nobody to tranquilize this trapped leopard.

However the officials realizing that there was no time to be wasted and since the animal appeared to be exhausted they thought of a new tactic to get close enough to it to cut the wire of the snare.

They secured themselves inside a steel cage and got close to the leopard. Holding the exhausted leopard to the ground by using a few sticks, they succeeded in cutting the wire by using a long handled tool. The leopard slowly made its way back to the jungle and although it was exhausted, the officers believed it would survive.

It is believed that a local cattle breeder has setup the snare to trap a leopard which had killed several of his cattle.

Published on Online edition of SundayTimes on 01.05.2011

Leopard succumbs to gunshot wound

May 4, 2011

Another full-grown young leopard, about 7 feet from head to tail, died an agonizing death in Balangoda last week. Estate workers of Dethangolla off Balangoda saw the wounded leopard lying near a small stream.

The leopard was alive but could not move because its paralyzed hind legs were stuck under a fallen tree. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) was alerted, while estate workers stood watch over the exhausted leopard. The Elephant Transit Home (ETH) of Udawalawe was the closest medical facility belonging to DWC, and a team was immediately dispatched from the home in a bid to save the animal.

Helper holds in palm of his hand the bullet that had penetrated the leopard’s spine.

The leopard had six gunshot wounds, and one bullet had penetrated its spinal cord, paralysing the hind limbs, according to the ETH veterinary surgeon. As there were no signs of a struggle in the vicinity of the dead animal, it is believed that the leopard might have been shot at a distance, and that the animal had dragged itself a long way. The leopard’s underside showed signs of bruises and scratches.

Dr. W. D. L. Udaya Kumara, who oversaw the initial treatment after sedating the animal, said there were maggots in the wound, indicating that the animal might have been shot two or three days earlier.

The leopard was lying in a forested area and taking a vehicle to the spot was a problem. The team had to carry the animal 500 metres along a hill path. The heavy animal was carried to the vehicle with its legs tied to a pole. Although it was late evening, a large crowd had gathered around the DWC vehicle to get a glimpse of the big cat. Dr. Kumara heard from estate workers that the leopard had not been seen in the area before.

On arrival at the Elephant Transit Home, in Udawalawe, medical staff immediately set to attending to the leopard. The hind legs were completely paralyzed. It was found that the leopard had bitten its own legs and tail. The leopard’s condition deteriorated, despite the wildlife officers’ efforts, and the animal died the following day.

The carcass was sent to the Girithale wildlife facility, where Southern Region veterinary surgeon Dr. Vijitha Perera performed a post-mortem. Lead shots removed from the wounds suggested that they had come from a muzzle-loading gun. The vets believed the leopard had been shot sevral times at close range.

Reasons for the shooting remain a mystery. Leopards that live close to human habitats are careful to conceal themselves from humans. They usually do not attack humans and stealthily move away when they sense an encounter.

However villagers aware of the presence of a big cat may panic, fearing the animal might prey on domesticated dogs and cattle. The leopards are therefore hunted to protect livestock or pet animals. Leopards are also vulnerable to poachers who hunt the animals for their skins.

But if this leopard was targeted for its skin, the poacher or poachers would have had time to skin the crippled animal. It is also a known fact that some estate owners like to hunt leopards for the thrill of it, and use hunting dogs for the purpose.

published on SundayTimes on 01.05.2011

Straying leopard falls into troubled waters

February 21, 2011

The tragic death of a full grown hill country leopard caught in a snare on January 23 was reported in the Sunday Times. Now, come reports of more trouble for wild cats, who could accidentally stray into human settlements.

The most recent leopard incident was reported from Nawalapitiya on February 13. A villager from a Weralugolla, Nawalapitiya who had gone to his well in the morning had been surprised by the sight of a leopard in the well. He promptly informed Nawalapitiya Police and Wildlife officers. After observing the animal for some time the regional wildlife officers had called for more assistance, as the animal had to be tranquilized before it was lifted out to safety.

The rescue operation gets underway. Pic by Suranga Rajanayake

This proved to be an uphill task as the animal was exhausted and a large crowd had gathered around the well. The well was about 10 feet deep and the frightened animal had taken refuge in a cavity in the wall of the well. No sooner the leopard was tranquilized, it had fallen unconscious into the water, but the wildlife team had managed to put a rope around its neck and pull it to safety.

“Even four inches of water is enough to drown an unconscious leopard, so we had to act quickly,” explained the veterinarian Dr.Darmakeerthi who had earlier instructed the team to pump the water out of the well. The veterinary surgeon said the leopard was a young male about four and a half feet long, from nose to tail and may have been about one and a half years old.

The village is adjacent to a forest patch known as Rilagala. Leopard experts believe the leopard was a ‘dispersing’ young male, that is an animal on the move in search of a new jungle patch as its territory. When a young leopard matures, it separates from the mother looking for new territories. But the forests are fragmented in many areas forcing them to cross human settlements to reach another jungle patch which results in close encounters with humans.

Rukshan Jayawardene – a leopard conservationist says such infiltrations are more possible during the drought season, adding however, the lack of prey in their natural habitats too could push leopards close to human habitations. When food sources dwindle, the leopards stray into human habitats in search of easier prey, like cattle and dogs in villages. Rukshan Jayawardane also points out the importance of having a common action plan to handle cases of leopards being found in human settlements.

In India the human leopard conflict is worse than in Sri Lanka, but they have developed a plan on what to do when a leopard is spotted in a village, he said, adding that establishing a Task Force to handle Leopard matters under the Wildlife Department here would be helpful to manage the Human Leopard Conflict.

The Nawalapitiya leopard should have ideally been released into the adjacent Rilagala forest, but villagers had protested and wildlife officers were forced to release the animal into the Bomuruella Sanctuary , a closeby hill country habitation.

Experts have pointed out that like in the case of the Human Elephant conflict translocation is not the answer even in the case of the human leopard conflict. Leopard expert Anjali Watson, who studied the Sri Lankan leopard for more than a decade says the leapoard is a territorial predatory animal whose survival depended on knowledge of its habitat, prey species and competitors. Transferring such an animal from one habitat to an alien one resulted in the inability of the animal to adapt to new surroundings.

The Leopard is also a territorial animal which also does not tolerate a stranger in its territory. So if a leopard is relocated into an area where another leopard lives, a battle for supremacy is inevitable, which usually resulted in the death of the relocated animal.

There were several other reports of leopard incidents in the past few weeks. These included finding three leopard cubs in Norwood, the arrest of a Deniyaya planter for trapping and killing a leopard in January. However officials of the Leopard Project of The Wilderness & Wildlife Conservation Trust who investigated these incidents revealed that the animals were fishing cats and not leopard.

The villagers of Norwood had found three young cubs close to a flooding culvert and they were handed over to Norwood police. They were later handed over to the Wildlife Department, but they were too weak to survive. In a similar incident, Rusty Spotted Cat cubs were also handed over by villagers believing that the mother had abandoned the cubs, or being killed by poachers.  However Anjali believes the mother would have been close by and the villagers should have left the cubs where they were.

Published on 20.02.2011 on SundayTimes

Snare Kills a Nuwara Eliya Leopard

January 30, 2011

An adult male leopard fell victim to a wire snare and died at Sithaeliya in Nuwara Eliya last Sunday (23rd.Jan). According to eyewitnesses, the incident occurred only about 25m away from the main road.

Poachers usually resort to wire snares rigged out of cables used in motorbikes or trishaws to catch game animals such as wild boar. However, sources say the leopard which was seen crossing the road several times in this area could have been the target.

Several leopards had already fallen victim to these deadly wire snares, including a rare black leopard in Deniyaya in 2009. Leopards live in Hill Country are more illusive and another one died in 2008 at Nanuoya. When a leopard gets caught to a snare, the wire tightens around its abdomen. On its attempt to break free, the snare further tightens, which ultimately results in damage to its internal organs.

Wildlife veterinary surgeon Dr.W.A.Dharmakerthi who performed the postmortem on the Seethaeliya leopard, said the wire had damaged the leopard’s kidneys, resulting in its death. Dr.Dharmakeerthi advices the public not to disturb a leopard caught in a snare. When the leopard sees people, the animal panics and struggles to escape, which results in the wire tightening and causing more damage. “So the best thing to do its to get away from there and immediately call wildlife officers who can tranquilize the animal to set it free” says Dr.Dharmakeerthi. He managed to release another leopard caught in Minneriya about a year back as he could act faster upon the information he received.

Published on SundayTimes on 30.01.2011  (page 06)

Leopards killed by Snares from past news reports..

*  Rare black beauty caught in snare (08.03.2009):

* Callous death traps and the death of a leopard (14.05.2008):

More photos of Seethaeliya Leopard


Shouldn’t Yala animals get drought break..?

October 10, 2010

Yala National Park (or Ruhunu National Park) has been traditionally closed from mid September to October to give a relief to the animals during the height of the drought. But for the last few years, Yala has been kept open. Yala block 1 is the most heavily visited National Park of Sri Lanka; so should this tradition be continued or not..?? This is my article published in 2007 about the traditional Drought Break received by Yala animals…

Yala animals get drought break

Text by Malaka Rodrigo, Pix by Ashwini Jayatilake & Mevan Piyasena.
Published on 07.Oct.2007

“When first I came to my new jungle home at the end of July, there had been no rain in this whole Ruhunu area. The good earth was parched and cracked and hard as concrete; trees, bushes, shrubs and grass all burnt a pale sienna brown. I was able to see far into scrub jungle as there was hardly any foliage, and dead leaves crunched under my foot as I walked. Across a wide salt pan or lewaya, I could have driven a high powered car with no fear of sinking into the hard crust of salt.”

This is how Douglas Raffel unveiled the “The Great Thirst” experienced during the drought in the first chapter of his book, “In Ruhunu Jungles”.

Leopard drinking from an artificial water hole at Yala.

Yala, the country’s most popular National Park is traditionally closed to visitors from September 1 to mid-October during the height of the drought. This is to avoid any disturbance to already wearied animals by hundreds of visitors and moving vehicles.

This year, however the closure has been reduced by two weeks and in response to requests from the travel industry, Yala Park will open on October 16. This decision was taken by the Department of Wildlife Conservation after studying the ground conditions, considering the good rainfall enjoyed during the period.

As the most popular park in Sri Lanka, Yala has become a hot-spot of Sri Lanka’s tourism. “This year the park received pre-monsoon rain and the drought is not severe. In addition the measures we have taken last year to sustain water such as deepening water holes have also assisted to keep the water. Considering the request from the tourism sector and carefully assessing the ground situation, the Department of Wildlife Conservation decided to shift the closing date by 14 days,” park warden W.S.Weragama said.

Located in the arid zone, the Yala Park gets rain mainly from the North-east monsoon, from November to January. The inter-monsoon rains in March/April and September also provide water, but are unpredictable. The dry season usually starts in June and continues until September/mid October.

deer drinking from an artificial water hole at Yala. Pix by Ashwini Jayatilake

At this time temperatures can rise to a high of 37oC, although the mean annual temperature is 27 oC. Average rainfall is 1281mm, but it is lower in Block III, IV, V and the Strict Nature Reserve which receives from 550-775 mm. The drought is most severe during the pre-monsoonal months of September/October.

The need of a closure was first suggested in 1950 by the Game and Fauna Protection Society (presently Wildlife and Nature Protection Society – WNPS). It was initially for a period of two months and later reduced to 45 days.

Drought is a blessing

“Drought is a blessing of nature,” states Childers Jayawardene, who was Yala Park warden in the late ’70s. “Drought eliminates the sick and weak animals. Next year after the drought, what we have is a healthier animal population. Drought is nature’s way of maintaining life.” Hence, the mechanisms to minimize the damages of the drought should be carefully considered, says Mr. Jayawardene.

As vividly described by Raffel, the park loses its greenery completely during the drought. The water-holes start to disappear and animals congregate around the remaining water sources. Lack of food sources and thirst usually make the animals restless and they sometimes fight for the scarce resources.

Water holes – the lifeline

“Everywhere were the signs of a great thirst and of a great hunger too, for with no green leaves and grass, their hunger was as great as their thirst. Visiting two well known water-holes, I found where there had once been water, the sun-baked footprints of wild animals and birds in the hard ground. In a river twenty-two miles away was now the closest water, and there too only at certain pools. Crocodiles had left the river and roamed far. Lullas (a fish) had dug themselves into the earth till the rains came. Everywhere was the desolation of the drought,” Raffel wrote, describing the drought in, “In Ruhunu Jungles”.

Menik Ganga is indeed the lifeline during a bad drought. There are also several natural and man-made tanks such Gonagala, Mandagala, Uraniya, Mahaseelawa, Heenwewa, Korawakka that are the major water sources, until they completely dry up. Several natural rock pools known as kema also hold water even during the height of the drought. Welmakkema, Jamburagala, Padikema, Kimbulagala, Walaskema are some of them.

A sloth bear and cub in Yala.

These rock water pools are sometimes filled by park management during severe droughts by placing large concrete basins at the bottoms and creating artificial ponds.

During the critical time, when the water gets completely exhausted, water bowsers are sent to fill them up once in two days and animals are now used to waiting eagerly for the browser to arrive. This initiative was also supported by other organizations and those in the area.

Poaching during the drought

Drought is the easiest period to hunt game. Hunters only need to wait at a hideout till the thirsty animals emerge. Several years ago, during one of the worst droughts, it was revealed that poachers would dig holes and place bags of water mixed with poison which was drunk by animals like the Spotted Deer, Sambhur and Wild Boar who then suffered an agonizing death.

The park management has now strengthened anti-poaching activities during the drought. Mobile units are sent to nab illegal entrants and small camps are set up in strategic places to deter poachers. The closure of the park frees up additional manpower for these efforts.

Animals’ response to the drought

Elephants who remain on high ground around Jamburagala during the wet season, come down to the plains during the dry season. As the drought sets in, elephants again start moving away from the coastal belt – some toward the perennial waters of Menik ganga and Blocks II and III, while other herds move to Meynert wewa, Heenwewa, Katagamuwa and even to settlements outside the park. With the rains in November-December, they return to the coastal belt. But deepening of tanks and managing of water sources during the drought have altered some of these migratory patterns, with animals staying inside the park itself.

Elephants are also good at finding water. They can sense the water beneath a dried-up riverbed and have the strength to dig the sand in search of water. Other animals follow them to get this rare fresh water source.

Some people believe Yala should not be closed as most of the other parks are not, even during drought periods. But Yala has a unique climatic and hydrologic condition and the welfare of wildlife during the drought should be the key in taking the decision. On the other hand, simply closing it on a given date also does no good. The decision to open/close the park should hinge on this delicate balance of the welfare of its animals and of the dependents.

Soon, the drought will be over and the park will be open to visitors. This is how Raffel saw the rebirth of the “Ruhunu Jungles” after the drought.

“On one night I woke to the sound of rain pattering on the roof noisily. The rain was pouring down on us at last! ……As though by magic, a fresh green mantle covers the khaki and brown jungle of yesterday. Transparent scrub has become thick jungle through which you cannot see. Already flowers adorn each bush. Birds keep chasing each other about and I have seen the foundation stones of several nests. It is almost unbelievable that all this could happen in four days.” Published on 07.10.2007

The cat that prowls Colombo suburbs

June 1, 2009

Sacheendra Deepankara got the call around 8.30 p.m. on May 13. A friend from Kohuwela phoned to alert him about a mysterious animal that had been hit by a vehicle. An active member of the Young Zoologists’ Association, Deepankara rushed to the site and called the Dehiwala Zoo.


A fishing cat caught in camera

Zoo authorities were quick to send a team and rushed to the car sales centre where the mysterious animal had taken shelter. The torch light caught a pair of glowing eyes under a parked vehicle. With a loud ‘hissing’ noise the animal tried to escape, but the team managed to secure the nets around the ‘cat like’ creature. It had a long, stocky body and relatively short legs with a broad head. Its olive-gray fur coat with black stripes and rows of black spots made it look like a small leopard. Deepankara was quick to identify the well grown animal as a Fishing Cat, known as ‘handun diviya’ in Sinhala.

Fishing cats prefer densely vegetated areas near water – marshes, mangroves, rivers and streams. “I was amazed to see a full grown Fishing Cat in an urban area like Kohuwela,” said Deepankara. Residents said another wild cat that had fallen into a well was rescued by them a few months ago.


Setting up a camera trap

“There were two animals that used to roam close to the spot where the fishing cat was hit by the speeding vehicle. But they were harmless and would run away if they sensed a human presence,” said another resident. Deepankara believes the abandoned paddy fields near Green Avenue, Kohuwela could be their home.

The Fishing Cat is a medium-sized wild cat that depends on wetlands. So how can such a wild cat appear in a suburban environment? Dr.Eric Wikremanayake – a senior scientist of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – who had studied Fishing Cats in urban environments in Sri Lanka provided some answers. “It is an elusive creature that can survive in the remaining wetlands in Colombo,” says Dr. Wikramanayake. Fishing cats were recorded in areas such as Boralesgamuwa, Nawala where little pockets of forest, marshes, and mangroves remain.

Fishing cats are nocturnal and truly secretive wild cats that avoid humans so studying them is a nightmare for researchers. Dr. Wikramanayake faced the same problem during his study of this urban fishing cat population done in early 2000 at Attidiya/Bellanwila and Sri Jayawardenepura/Kotte wetlands with the approval of Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and funding from the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. The research team first interviewed the villagers and identified the areas fishing cats are frequently seen. Then they used quite an unusual method to study these wild cats, setting camera traps all around the edges of the identified fishing cat routes. The fishing cats took their own pictures by breaking a sensory beam that triggers the camera shutter as they walked past. Pictorial evidence confirmed their presence in Nawala and Attidiya.

This study also shed light on the behaviour and ecology of this wild cat that ironically, lives so close to human habitation. The time recorded on the photographs indicated that fishing cats are active both day and night. Although people reported seeing them very early in the morning, the photographs showed fishing cats walking around at midday. Some shots recorded more than one Fishing Cats. This indicates that mating too is not a problem and the remaining population would survive, if the urban wilderness was retained. “Being a charismatic species, we should use the Fishing Cat as a flagship species to promote the need to protect our remaining wetlands,” says Dr. Wikremanayake.

The research team had plans to radio collar fishing cats to track their movements and distribution. They also had plans to compare the behaviour patterns of fishing cats in urban areas with fishing cats living in natural environments.

The second part of the study however was halted due to security reasons as the two main sites are located near high security zones – one near the Parliament and the other near Ratmalana airport.
During the initial study, the team found that fishing cats are often accused of preying on chickens. The Fishing Cat research team also began an awareness campaign among the local residents and in schools, to impress upon people that what they have in their backyards is something special—an endangered wild cat that needs to be conserved. The latest victim – the Kohuwala Fishing Cat was already dead by the time it was taken to the Animal Hospital in Dehiwala Zoo. So it needs a collective effort to protect the remaining Fishing Cat population in urban and suburban areas, before it is too late.

Fishing Cat – fact file

Known as the “bull dog” of cats, the fishing cat has a long, stocky body. The average weight of a male is 12 kg while a female weighs around 7 kg. Its diet includes birds, small mammals, snakes, snails, and of course fish.

The cat attracts fish by lightly tapping the water’s surface to catch the fish. It can also use its partially webbed paws to scoop fish, frogs, and other prey out of the water or swim underwater to prey on ducks and other aquatic birds.

It is powerful enough to take large prey, such as calves and dogs. Listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, fishing cats are threatened by habitat loss and hunting.

This is published on SundayTimes on 31.05.2009