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Sri Lankan leopards in Yala


Yala leopards appear to be much larger than average compared to elsewhere in the world. 

(by VIMUKTHI FERNANDO/ Sunday observer) The group is excited. The hassel of early rising fades into oblivion. Nothing matters now for the target of our visit sprawls on top of a huge rock, basking in the sun. A reddish-brown stain, seeps through the cavities of his upper jaw- he is relaxed after a good meal. Now, a luxurious yawn and stretch and behold the Sri Lankan leopard (Kotiya or Pulli in local parley). We are at Yala Block 1 the current location of many a magnificent specimen.

Fierce but beautiful, they are the pride of the jungles of Sri Lanka. Growing to about six to seven feet in length and weighing from 75 to 170 pounds, they are feared by all save perhaps the elephant. Being the apex predator, they carry out the essential task of controlling the population of other herbivorous animals in the jungles. It was fairly recently that they won recognition being the 'isolated' and therefore the special sub-species endemic in Sri Lanka, classified as 'panthera pardus kotiya.'

How did Yala, a location popular for sloth bears and elephants became so popular for leopards? It was the result of the undeterred efforts of two young nature lovers- Jehan Kumara a businessman and Ravi Samarasinghe a medical doctor. Supported by a group of leopard enthusiasts who spent many years in the jungles of Yala - observing, photographing, recording and enjoying leopards, they not only managed to launch a book 'For the Leopard, a tribute to Sri Lankan Leopards' in memory of Harith Perera, another leopard enthusiast but managed to draw the attention of cat-enthusiasts around the world through a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) documentary and feature article on 'the mysteries of leopards' in the BBC Wildlife, magazine.

Their systematic observation and record keeping in Yala Block 1 over six years had enabled them identify 30 adult individual leopards by their spot patterns. However, they are "leopards sited frequently", say Jehan and Ravi. If a leopard was seen only once, it was not counted. "For the past six years we have seen about 30 cubs but do not know their whereabouts." Most of these cubs are males- for panthera pardus, a lone animal, leaves its mother's territory at sexual maturity. However, in Yala Block 1 they had observed that the "female cubs live close to their mothers, their territories overlapping each other at times." Though the leopard density in Yala Block 1, a habitat of 14,100 hectares is considered 'rather high' compared to elsewhere in the world, their observations had brought them the happy conclusion of having no sick animals there. "Take the case of the female without an eye. Even she is quite well-fed and healthy. An indication of prey in plenty."

They had also experienced the marked differences or the uniqueness of the Yala leopards; That they appear to "be much larger than average compared to elsewhere in the world, tackle much larger game such as full-grown sambhur and almost full-grown buffalo, be much more sociable and tolerant towards their species and other animals, have much smaller territories, employ ambush as the favourite method of hunting, prefer spotted deer as their favourite prey".

Meanwhile, their observations are confirmed by the husband and wife team of wildlife conservation researchers, Anjali Watson and Andrew Kittle, who carried out a joint research project with Dr. Ravi Samarasinghe at Yala Block 1, from February 2001 for eight months.

"There is no competition for food. So they are not bothered about protecting a kill. We have noted a number of kills left here and there. Leopard kills feed a number of other animals. They actively keep the prey in check", says Anjali. However, she is cautious about leopard density. "We have to be careful about this population, because it is an isolated island population. It could become a problem very soon with man expanding villages into their territories. Look at what's happening in the montane areas", she points out. Backed by the DWLC and sponsored by Jetwing Eco Holidays, research at Yala Block 1 aims to get a fundamental grasp on behaviour and topography and covered conservation needs such as identification of individual leopards, measuring population density, land requirements, eco-balance and predator-prey relationships.

However, much still remains to be done for a stable and sustainable conservation plan for this unique animal. "This is only the beginning. I hope someone would do a comprehensive study. While our observations (and initial research) have hinted at many things apart from its uniqueness, only proper research will show" says Jehan.

Sadly no professional/systematic research has been carried out regarding the leopards of Sri Lanka as yet, though it is of much importance to Sri Lankan wildlife. Ignorance dominates when it comes not only to the habits and habitats but even the numbers.

Though, the DWLC records a few observations at the protected areas Wasgomuwa, Udawalawa and Horton Plains siting about 10 to 15 animals at each area, there are no records of the specific numbers.

No research had been conducted to find out the effects on war, the restriction of habitats in the jungles of Wilpattu where the leopards prowled in plenty a decade or two ago. Though, reports of their presence in other areas such as Udawalawa, Gal Oya, Wasgomuwa, Horton Plains and Sinharaja were trickling in during the last few years, it poses the question whether the leopard density has increased or the human population is invading prime habitats of leopards.

Neither had any research been carried out on leopards in captivity. Although, the National Zoological Gardens boast of a collection of 20 leopards, 14 males and 06 females, inbreeding has largely affected the gene pool there.

Meanwhile, the leopard is still hunted for skin, teeth and bone has not changed. Three leopard skins were confiscated from poachers in 2000, while in the year 2001 the number had increased to 10. Though leopards are protected under the Fauna and Flora Ordinance since 1938 poaching goes on unabated. The trade continues in spite of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) treating the Asian leopard as an endangered animal and completely restricting any trade in leopard products since 1975. Spot pattern identification

Tall, lean, dressed simply in sombre colours and soft-spoken it was not difficult to see the medical doctor in him. But, someone who braves the wrath of the elements, day in and day out going after one of the most dangerous animals in the world... for nearly 10 years? Looks are deceptive they say... quite true. His notebook proves it.

He is Dr. Ravi Samarasinghe. One of the initiators of systematic leopard observations in Yala Block 1, Dr. Samarasinghe endeavours to identify individual animals by their "spot patterns." This is a method used internationally in identifying big cats. Spot markings on the forehead, above and below eyes and mystacial area are used to identify the individuals, along with other significant physical characteristics.

How did he become interested in leopards? "My first interest was birds. I was not interested in leopards until I met Lal Anthonis and visited the jungles together taking photographs" reminiscences Ravi. He had started keeping notes "out of habit, on the time of day, weather conditions, location and so on." In the meanwhile questions came popping up. Why do we see them sometimes and not other times? Do we see the same leopard many times or are they different ones? Why do citing increase on Poya days? and so on.

His visit to Nargahole national park in India, in 1993 was the turning point. "I noted the spot patterns used to identify leopards. This captured my interest as I was struggling to figure out whether the leopard I see in an area is the same one or a different one", says Ravi. In the next two years Ravi had taken efforts to upgrade his photographic equipment and had been only too happy to be posted at a hospital close to his favourite park- Hambantota in 1995. It gave him the opportunity to visit the Yala national park often.

His notebook is evidence. Where and when the individual animal was sited first. The sightings afterwards. Any special behaviour. Unique characteristics. Sketches, painstakingly done to perfection showing the different 'spot patterns' of each individual adorn the book. There are photographs as well. There is also a sketch of the possible territory of each individual.

"The territory of a male includes the territories of 2 or 3 females and a female's territory is determined by prey density" he tells me.

Any tips for leopard sightings in Yala? Leopards could normally be seen during early morning and late evening. Often, cubs are more tolerant than adults. When you site a leopard, the first few minutes are quite critical. It determines whether he stays or runs. So, if you suddenly locate a leopard on the way, best is to go past a few more yards and then turn and come back quietly. Worst is sudden halts. In the jungles, sudden halt is interpreted as a threat and triggers the fight or flight response. The more quiet and disciplined you are, the more opportunity to see leopards in their own habitat, says Ravi Samarasinghe.

@ WWW Virtual Library Sri Lanka