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 Post subject: The Leopard of Sri Lanka
 Post Posted: Sat Jul 16, 2005 4:18 am 
The Leopard of Sri Lanka

Copyright © 2004 MANRECAP


THE LEOPARD (Panthera pardus Linnaeus, 1758)


The leopard (Panthera pardus) is the top mammalian carnivore in Sri Lanka. The name leopard itself is a misnomer given on the mistaken belief that it is a hybrid between the lion (Leo in Latin) and the “pard” or panther. The golden-brown pelage is covered with open rosette-like black spots. No two leopards have the same pattern. The rosettes in the leopard lack the additional black spots inside, which distinguish it from the Jaguar (Panthera onca). Unlike tigers, leopards frequently produce a black or melanistic variety, known as "Black Panther", which is very rare in Sri Lanka. Leopards from arid areas tend to be paler in colour than those from humid forests. DNA-based genetic studies indicate that the Sri Lankan leopard is a separate subspecies Panthera p. kotiya.


The leopard is the most widespread of all the big cats. The typical form came from Egypt but its present range extends from sub-Saharan Africa across the Arabian Peninsula into the Indian sub-continent and further eastwards to China, Korea, the Russian Fareast, Peninsular Malaysia and Java. In Sri Lanka the leopard was once widely distributed across much of the island from sea level to over 2,000 m. More recently, a combination of forest conversion and poaching has reduced substantially, both the number and range of the leopard. Nevertheless, viable populations occur both within several protected areas as well in the remote forested areas in the north and east.


The leopard is a highly adaptable felid. It inhabits both the semi-arid, thorn scrub of the lowlands and the dense montane cloud forest of the highlands. However, it is essentially a forest animal: even those adapted to semi-arid conditions appear to have a physiological need for shade during the heat of the day. Although in Sri Lanka it is the least nocturnal of all the felids, in places where it has learned to fear man, the leopard becomes much more cautious and nocturnal. It is usually solitary, unless accompanied by dependent young or during courtship and mating. In undisturbed areas, it spends considerable part of its daily activity on the ground, seeking refuge of the trees only at times. Rocky outcrops are often used as vantage points.

The leopard has excellent night vision, and hunts largely on sight. It is more an opportunistic predator than any other felid, and will attempt to kill any prey it comes across. As predators, leopards must spend a considerable amount of time locating and capturing prey. The classic hunt consists of stalk, chase and kill. Despite its relatively small body size, the leopard is still capable of taking large prey, and is extremely adaptable to changes in prey availability. In general, females with cubs are more successful in killing the prey that they encounter than males. Females also use their slightly smaller home ranges more effectively in capturing prey. Should the prey density become very low however, a female would range over a wider area, since her behaviour is usually more closely keyed to resources, given the responsibility of raising young. Leopards at times may drag their kill up into the branches of tall trees in order to avoid the unwelcome attention of other predators and scavengers such as jackals, wild boar or crocodiles. Leopards seem to prefer prey in the 20-70 kg size category, with an upper limit at about 225 kg, two or three times the weight of the cat itself

The leopard always attacks its large quadruped prey by seizing it by the throat with its teeth and strangling it while grasping it firmly round the neck and shoulders with its strong forelegs, and commence feeding on the soft parts of the belly first. The amount of meat eaten by an adult leopard may vary from 8 to 18 kg in 12 hours. Given that almost a quarter of the kill consists of inedible portions, a leopard may have to kill prey amounting to 487-584 kg per year to survive. Although its principal prey in Sri Lanka is the spotted deer (Axis axis), several other herbivores may function as buffer prey items. When the prey types available in an area are grouped according to their size, a clear preference for medium-sized herbivorous mammals emerges in leopard kills. Scats show the remains of wild boar (Sus scrofa), mouse deer (Moschiola meminna), porcupine (Hystrix indica), black-naped hare (Lepus nigricollis) and even water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis). Especially significant is the leopard's capacity to subsist on small prey such as rodents, snakes, game birds, even when "normal" prey is available. It can even feed on carrion. It is this catholicity of diet that enables the leopard to prey off a wide range of herbivore species and other food resources. Man-eating leopards are rare in Sri Lanka: the famous Punani man-eater was shot over its last human kill by R. Shelton Agar in 1924, after it had killed and devoured at least 12 people.

The main vocalization of the leopard is a rough, rasping sound similar to that of a saw cutting wood. Through these calls, leopards are able to maintain their spacing and also respond to members of the opposite sex during the breeding season. In addition, leopards also hiss and growl when angry, grunt when alarmed, and caterwaul when treed by dogs. Home range size in carnivores increases with the metabolic needs of the animals. The minimum estimates of the home range of the leopard in Sri Lanka vary from 4 to 10.5 km2. Females occupy territories that may overlap with those of other females slightly. But the much larger male territories overlap those of several females in an area. The boundaries of the territories are defended in fights and are marked throughout by urine sprayed onto logs, tree-trunks, and bushes in the course of the leopard’s extensive travels around its territory. However, a leopard usually covers a great part of its range every few days, and rarely stays in one spot for two nights in succession. While the male home ranges do not overlap, the adult females might share a part of their range with a male. Within their home ranges, the leopards scent-mark by squirting urine on trees and bushes. Leopards also make scrape marks on the ground, on trunks of trees and defecate in prominent places, to communicate their presence in the area. The density at which leopards occur varies with the availability of prey. In Block I of Ruhuna National Park, Sri Lanka, where prey is abundant, leopards occur at an average density of about 0.25 per km2.

Felids appear to be seasonally polyestrous in temperate regions and completely polyestrous in the tropics. Leopards reproduce when they are 2-3 years old. The onset of breeding may be associated with the rasping calls, which increase in frequency during estrous. Females are sexually receptive at 3-7 week intervals, and the period of receptivity lasts for a few days, during which mating is frequent. After a gestation period of about 98-105 days, on average 3 cubs are born blind and furred in a burrow, hollow log or in a rocky cave. They are weaned in three months. Leopard cubs are adapted for a "feast and famine" food regime from a very early age. Male cubs usually disperse from the natal area when they are about between 8 months and 2 years old, while female cubs remain within the mother’s territory and eventually take over a part or all of her territory. Average longevity in the wild could be about 10 years, although in captivity leopards may live up to 20 years.


The number of predators in Sri Lanka is a measure of the island’s biological diversity and ecological richness. The existence of carnivores highlights the presence of a much larger ecological community, of which the leopard is at the top of the food chain. The leopard was once very numerous and widespread in Sri Lanka. Just how numerous it was could be appreciated from the numbers that were killed officially: between 1872 and 1899, a total of 8,473 animals were destroyed for which rewards were paid. In the Mannar District alone, 582 leopards were killed between 1854 and 1886. At the turn of the century, the number of leopards in the island was estimated at 1,660, when at least 50% of the land was under forest cover. Since then however, the forest cover has declined to less than 23%, while the human population has increased to over 19 million by 2000. Any assessment of leopard numbers is difficult, given the secretive nature of the felid and its capacity to exist in unlikely localities without betraying its presence. Today, perhaps between 400-600 leopards may survive in Sri Lanka. While it is impossible to be certain that this conservative estimate is correct, it is clear that the numbers of the leopard in Sri Lanka can now be measured in ‘hundreds’ whereas in the last century, it would have been estimated in ‘thousands’. The greatest threat to any wild felid comes from the increasing use of poison in agricultural areas. Given its propensity for scavenging, the leopard is more susceptible to taking poisoned meat. It is also widely poached for its skin, even within protected areas. Thus the leopard is subject to the vicissitudes of the illegal fur trade coupled with the acceleration of its habitat destruction. Therefore it may be among the most seriously endangered species of large mammals in Sri Lanka. Today, the leopard survives in a few small populations of unknown size. Yet not all small populations are ipso facto doomed. If habitat and other resources are available, and if the area is well protected, a species may increase rapidly. If several small, isolated populations persist, gene flow may possibly be maintained artificially by an occasional exchange of individuals. Conservation areas that support leopards in Sri Lanka must be of sufficient size to ensure at least the minimum viable populations could survive within their boundaries. Outside protected areas, the best opportunity for leopard conservation appears to lie in some form of multiple-use-pattern of forest development. The future for all wild cats in Sri Lanka is not likely to be rosy, if habitat loss continues unabated. The unnecessary extinction of any species represents a loss to human welfare.

Reference to the above material from:

© Rukshan Jayewardene1, Iroshan Kulatunga2 and Charles Santiapillai3 (2003)

1 University of Maryland (USA)/University of Cambridge (UK) For the Leopard Trust

2 Dharmaraja College, Kandy, Sri Lanka

3 University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka



Quest for a jungle king

Seeing a leopard in the wild is a most memorable experience, Veronica Matheson finds

November 28, 2004
Sunday Herald Sun

WE ARE on the third day of our search for the elusive Sri Lankan leopard.

A Sri Lankan leopard descends from a tree in the Wilpattu National Park
We crisscross scrubby bush in Yala National Park – 100,000ha in the southeast of the magical island – and churn up talcum-fine red dust on vast open plains.

Our open-sided four-wheel-drive bumps and wheezes up steep slopes of polished, rounded rocks to hidden places where leopards are known to stretch out in the sun.

On the way, there have been sightings of elephants. The latest is a rare tusker, trumpeting as he crushes spindly trees in his wake and sends agile monkeys swinging to other perches.

Highly strung spotted deer move off swiftly at his arrival, while lumbering buffalo stay, cooling off from the tropical heat in the mud of lazy lagoons.

The torpor of the days even has the crocodiles settled in the water in peaceful coexistence with a park alive with smaller prey.

Karu, our guide, tells us Yala is home to more than 100 leopards – one of the highest leopard densities in the world – yet the elusive, unsociable cat remains out of sight.

A Sri Lankan leopard descends from a tree in the Wilpattu National Park

Our 4WD driver and game tracker are disappointed, there is no hi-tech assistance for these guys, no implanted micro-chips or walkie-talkies to keep them informed by other park rangers.

Instead, they rely on sharp eyes and ears tuned to every nuance of the bush.

We know a leopard is not far away because along the dry, dusty track are fresh footprints of this jungle's king. A gentle wind is blowing, but it has had no time to distort the leopard's perfectly formed, distinctive pad prints.

We are taking no risks and the vehicle has a covered top as leopards have a penchant for climbing on tree limbs to jump on prey.

The driver, tracker and guide do not carry guns and those on board are told to keep inside the vehicle at all times.

Animals in this park are wild – it is their territory. And rightly so.

Dusk is falling, streaking the sky with vivid colours.

We check a few more waterholes where a Noah's Ark of animals drink and then head back to camp.

Then the adrenalin rushes.

Two huge liquid gold eyes beam out from thorny bush. It is as if a blinding spotlight has been switched on and we are frozen in its sights.

Our driver turns off the 4WD's engine as the hypnotic eyes remain still and steadily focused.

All we can hear is our excited breathing.

It is a glorious eternity . . . then the lean leopard lopes slowly off. His stunning mustard coat reflects in the disappearing light – a sheen of luxurious velvet with markings so distinctive designers would be hard pressed to imitate.

The meeting with this leopard is brief, but so memorable.

Back in the bar, our names are placed on the honorary leopard-spotting board.

We toast the elusive leopard, overlooking the mountainous tusker with skin thick as old leather who came within patting distance.

Tomorrow, we will go in search of sloth bears

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