Leopard succumbs to gunshot wound

By Malaka Rodrigo

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.

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