Four days after the Sinhala and Hindu New Year, on April 18, the news went around that a leopard had attacked a casual employee working on road constructions in the Yala East National Park. On this day the crew was working on the Babaragasthalawa road on the Bagura Plains. At about 4.30 in the evening [...]


A possible man- eater on the prowl in Kumana?


It is not at all normal for a leopard to attack a human. Pic by Ravindralal Anthonis

Four days after the Sinhala and Hindu New Year, on April 18, the news went around that a leopard had attacked a casual employee working on road constructions in the Yala East National Park. On this day the crew was working on the Babaragasthalawa road on the Bagura Plains. At about 4.30 in the evening four workers with the victim had taken a break, resting in the shade of a tree when a leopard sprang on him. Typical of a leopard the victim was dragged away from the spot into the bush. A brave jeep driver had driven up to the spot to help and was attacked by the leopard suffering severe injuries as well.

It is not at all normal for a leopard to attack a human. Leopards usually avoid human confrontation if they are in the same territory at the same time. Lankan folklore says ‘Kotiyata dawas hathaka una enawa minihek dakkama’   – a leopard gets fever for seven days if it sees a human being at close quarters. These stories have been told by ancient people who lived in the forested villages in our country and had come to terms with and  understood the behaviour of all living beings including the leopard.

I am not an expert on leopards but a keen enthusiast of their behaviour. One can learn a lot by reading the books, My India, The Man Eaters of Kumoan, Leopard of Rudraprayag, written by the famous Englishman, Jim Corbett who shot some notorious man-eaters in affected villages in India. His notes on these experiences with man-eating tigers and leopards is a good guideline to anyone handling such a situation. We have also had our own man-eaters, the most famous being from Poonani in the eastern jungles of Sri Lanka. After a long period of terror during which it accounted for many human lives, this beast was killed by a brave man Shelton Egar.

In his book Man Eater of Poonani he gives a detailed description of what a dangerous beast a man-eater could be. It is difficult for one to believe how an animal could have the type of intelligence and understanding to adapt its skills to attack human targets instead of the usual prey like deer, sambhur or a boar. Sometimes a leopard will attack humans because of its  inability to hunt due to an injury. Wounded paws or limbs, damaged claw nails, infected and festering wounds are critical for leopards. Hunting porcupine may well be a reason. In situations like this, leopards depend on left-over carcasses, small mammals which are easy prey and refrain from attacking bigger animals. In cases like this they would definitely attack a human being at the first given chance.

In this particular incident we do not know the condition of the Bambaragasthalawa leopard; whether it was suffering from an injury and unable to hunt or whether it was reacting to learnt lessons. Hence it is absolutely necessary to investigate and find out the cause for such an attack. Leopards can change territories and adapt to new conditions very quickly, even when close to human habitats.They tend to use their intelligence and adopt shrewd cunning systems to attack a human being, very different from other prey. A human will not put up resistance or fight back like a full grown deer, sambhur or wild boar. A human target is an easy kill -which they will learn from the first experience itself. Given the chance to repeat a leopard would not let the chance go a-begging.

According to information so far, this unfortunate incident does not look like a mistake or accident at all. The leopard would have watched its target carefully and targeted him before it attacked. The presence of three other men did not deter it. The attack on the jeep driver immediately after that shows it had no fear of humans. It is reported that the rescue team had to shoot the leopard with rubber bullets to chase it away in their efforts to recover the body of the victim.

If the Department of Wildlife is to ignore this or treat it as an isolated incident it might be at the cost of a critical situation in the future. Having a fearless leopard which dares to attack humans in a National Park is very much of a concern. It will affect all operational aspects of the park’s management. Will the Park Warden risk the life of his staff and detail field work like repairs to roads, tank bunds etc. and hope for things to work out smoothly?

The festival of the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devale will begin soon and thousands of pilgrims will walk through this terrain in the Pada Yathra. Department staff will have to be placed inside the park for essential duties. They will be joined by personnel from the forces. How does any officer guarantee safety to anyone under these conditions?

Three years ago we learnt about the attack on a school teacher who came along with the Pada Yathra and met with her death on the banks of the Menik at Kosgasmankada. She had walked with her group of pilgrims all the way, even passed through the Yala East National Park and come to the borders of Block 2 when this incident happened. Having spent the night at Kosgasmankada she had gone down to the river for a wash and was resting under a tree before they started the journey that morning. The leopard broke cover through the scrub and pounced on her causing fatal injuries to which she succumbed later. This may well be the same leopard we do not know.

Leopard incidents

In the later part of the 1980s very few people visited the National Parks due to the situation in the country. Lal Anthonis was then a consultant to the Department of Wildlife and the then Director of Wildlife Dr.Shelton Attapathu wanted him to study some issues concerning the development of infrastructure in the National Parks. I accompanied him on some of these trips.

During this period the strange behaviour of a leopard caused concern at Heenwewa in the Yala NP block 1. Lal was asked to investigate and report on some incidents that had already taken place.

Incident 1

Guide Sumanadasa had just retired to his quarters after a full day’s tour in Yala with his visitors staying at the Heenwewa Bungalow. The department tractor that does the routine rounds of supplies to the bungalows in the park had brought a letter for Sumanadasa and he was on his camp bed, reading the letter.

The leopard boldly entered Sumanadasa’s quarters through the front door. He put up a fight and chased it away but received severe injuries. He was rushed to hospital with the help of the visitors occupying the Heenwewa bungalow at the time.

Incident 2

Another incident at Heenwewa bungalow was when the Chairman of a leading mercantile firm in Colombo occupied this bungalow. He had a habit of wearing shoes while in the park and removed them on his return, leaving them on the steps to the verandah of the bungalow. He had shared his day’s happenings with the rest of his crew, had dinner and gone to sleep just before 10 p.m. In the morning he realized one shoe was missing. They had sufficient evidence that it was taken away by a leopard as they clearly saw the pug marks of a full grown male on the sandy lawn of the bungalow. So the leopard had come right up to the gate of the surrounding half wall of the bungalow and may have been lying on the steps biting the shoe before taking it away. The badly chewed-up shoe was later recovered from the forest.With these two incidents the Park Warden decided to close Heenwewa for visitors.

I joined Lal on one of his investigating trips to Heenwewa. We spent some sleepless nights at the Heenwewa bungalow. During the day we investigated the movements of leopards following their pug marks trying to establish recognition from one leopard to the other. We found the prints of a mother and cub who seemed to be roaming the area but had no signs of the character that we wanted. Sometimes you got the feeling that you were very close to it. The fear that can get into you is hard to describe. In dead silence you wait with the feeling that the beast may appear from anywhere. Then the surroundings once again become lively and the tension moves away.

The movements of the leopard were becoming distant as weeks and months passed till one day we had news from some people living around the area that a leopard had attacked a foreign nun who was meditating close to the caves of the Magul Maha Viharaya, resulting in major injuries to the nun. The department staff set up a special team to investigate.  It was later reported that a partly decomposed carcass of full grown male leopard was found in close proximity  to the viharaya. They also found that its right paw was badly infected with wounds caused by three porcupine quills having pierced right across the pads of the right paw through the flesh. However no more incidents were reported from the area and it was assumed that it was the same leopard that was involved in all these incidents.

Incident 3

Several years earlier the bungalow keeper at the New Butthuwa bungalow was attacked while he was walking up to the new bungalow from the old one only metres away. Incidents like this may happen especially in a case where you are confronted unexpectedly at close proximity. The leopard vanished from the area and no incidents were reported thereafter.

Having seen much work done on the leopard by keen young nature lovers in recent times I am sure there are capable people who could investigate this matter. The Department of Wildlife I am sure could find a competent person or team to take up this challenge and provide the infrastructure to expedite this matter.

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