For the love of the leopard
Flip through any Sri Lankan holiday brochure and undoubtedly it will feature the leopard, a prime tourist attraction prompting a proliferation of safari tour operators promising an encounter with this exquisite creature. But just how much do we know about our beloved yet endangered big cat, and are we doing enough to safeguard our proverbial golden goose?
The Sunday Times caught up with husband and wife team of ecologists Anjali Watson and Andrew Kittle, Manager and Principle Investigator of The Leopard Project, The Wilderness & Wildlife Conservation Trust (WWCT). Along with their research team, they have been carrying out invaluable research and conservation efforts since the inception of the project in 2000.
- Anjali, The Leopard Project was established by your husband, fellow biologist Andrew Kittle and yourself back in 2000. Why Leopards?
Because at the time we realised that there was very little known about the Sri Lankan leopard, its ecology and especially its distribution. Being Sri Lanka’s only top predator we felt it must hold an important role in our wilderness and hence our decision to research this elusive cat.
By conserving this top predator one would by default be conserving a host of other species upon which it preys. As well, most conservation decisions were focused around the elephant leaving out many habitats that they were not often found but where the leopard was – for e.g. the Central Highlands.
I have always been awed by the leopard and so it was an easy decision and has influenced our paths, with Andrew now being a specialist large carnivore zoologist while I look at landscape level conservation issues with a leopard focus.
- On the WWCT website, you refer to the Sri Lankan Leopard as a ‘keystone’ species. What is a keystone species?
We propose that it could well be playing the role of a keystone species. It is yet to be confirmed. A keystone species is one that’s role in an ecosystem is disproportionately large to the point that removing it from that system has the potential to completely de-stabilise the system. The term comes from architecture whereby the “keystone” in an arch is the top stone that supports the weight of all of the others – remove it and the arch tumbles down.
- We are all aware that habitat destruction is a serious threat to all wildlife. However, the leopard is particularly vulnerable to interactions with humans . Tell us about the extent of the human leopard conflict in Sri Lanka.
Luckily Sri Lanka does not have the type of issues faced by India or many African nations when it comes to wildlife conflict. We like to use the term co-existence instead of conflict- to make us realize that it is really a matter of managing how we live together with wildlife.
For centuries Sri Lankans have done this – grazed their cattle freely in the jungle and have paid the price of losing a calf to the jungle (the leopard in some cases) and this must not be seen as conflict but a way of co-existing. It is essential that this traditional view continues and that we do not change it and loose it to assume ‘conflict’ where co-existence is at work. Leopards do get poisoned in some instances but in the greater context of the species survival this does not seem to have population effects. Having said that, continued monitoring of this is necessary. The rising problem really is the incidental loss of leopards who are getting caught to wild-boar traps. This is especially so in the heavily fragmented hill country.
- How serious a threat is poaching to the leopard population here?
Direct poaching of leopard does not appear to be a major issue, although it is a measure that is notoriously difficult to make. A bigger issue is the indirect effects of poaching for other wild meats.
- Is the demand for poaching from local sources or international?
Again we assume here, as no quantified numbers exist. The local source is for the neck of the leopard as it is locally believed in some areas that it prevents asthma. Internationally it is for supplementing the tiger bone trade as leopard bones and claws are sold as tiger bones. But once again this has not been quantified.
But the real issue as mentioned earlier is the poaching of other wild meats- locally this is quite high. As a result the leopard is affected in two ways – firstly it gets caught directly in the same trap as mentioned earlier and secondly and more compounding is the fact that poached wild meat equals a reduced prey base for the leopard.
- You wrote that the deaths of five leopards due to snare traps motivated the Leopard Project team to undertake the Northern wildlife baseline survey . How traumatic is it for a leopard to be trapped in a snare ?
This can be extremely traumatic as you can imagine, given that the animal is caught and unable to get away. The extent of physical suffering is of course dependent on where the animal has been caught. Sometimes it is a leg or paw, so in the long run, assuming the animal is found and released (which probably often does NOT happen) and the wound does not get infected, would not be a big deal. If the animal is NOT released then this would probably result in drawn out death from starvation.
If the wound were to get infected, this might negatively affect the individual leopard’s hunting success which might then drive it toward easier targets (like domestic animals) and lead to a cycle of conflict. We have not infrequently seen leopards caught around the middle with the snare ending up like a cinched belt at the hips. This can literally start to tear the animal in half in its struggles to get out. All in all very unpleasant.
- In addition to research and conservation, The Leopard Project focuses on educating the general public. How do communities affected by human leopard conflict respond to such initiatives?
By and large communities that we have worked with have responded positively. Again this will be aided by the fact that conflict levels are actually very low. In fact “conflict” is probably not the right word given that we so rarely have anything approaching major issues between humans and leopards.
We prefer to try and get across the notion that we co-exist with a wide variety of species of which the leopard is one and that there are ways in which this co-existence can be smoothed or made easier. Thankfully, in Sri Lanka, the notion of sharing space with other species is inherent so it is typically a message that is well-received. We target our education and awareness programs at school children, particularly those in border villages where there have been past issues. They are the next generation that will be inheriting any of the co-existence issues that there might be. Most have a real hunger to learn about the forest and animals around them and are eager to have the opportunity to learn more.