Having endured a bloody civil war from 1983 until 2009, Sri Lanka is now at peace and developing rapidly. That’s good news for the country as a whole, but the island nation’s leopards are under threat.
Sri Lankan conservationist Anjali Watson says that as forests where leopards live are cleared to plant crops and build homes, the big cats are being squeezed into pockets of wilderness that don’t connect with each other.
“We’ve lost a lot of leopards,” says Watson. Nobody knows how many prowled the land before the war, but about 70% of the animals’ habitat has been destroyed, and only 750 to 1,000 adult leopards remain, she says.
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What’s more, leopards are at risk of getting caught in snares. The wire traps are usually set for bushmeat species, including wild boar and deer, but they are indiscriminate in what they catch.
Sri Lanka’s incredible wildlife
As Sri Lanka’s top predator, and its only big cat, the leopard “plays a key role” in Sri Lanka’s ecosystem, says Watson. “We call it an umbrella species,” she says, because taking steps to save leopards protects all the other species that share their forest home.
Watson grew up in the city of Colombo, but “I loved being out in wild spaces … I have a strong affinity with animals” she says.
(Video courtesy of Chitral Jayatilake)
In 1994 she moved to Ontario, Canada, to study at McMaster University, and met her future husband, Andrew Kittle.
A few years later the couple, who share a passion for wildlife, had settled in Sri Lanka. In 2000 they launched a pilot project to study leopards in Yala National Park in the island’s southeast. At the time, very little was known about the elusive animals, says Watson. To protect them, it was vital to understand their lives – and to count them.
Watson and Kittle, who went on to establish the Wilderness & Wildlife Conservation Trust (WWCT) in 2004, currently work in four locations around Sri Lanka. They are investigating the size of the leopard population using remote cameras that take photos when they detect movement. Leopards that are caught on camera can be identified because each one has a unique pattern of spots – and famously, their spots never change.
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Installing the cameras is often grueling work, says Watson. It can involve long drives on spine-rattling, rocky tracks, clambering up hillsides, bushwhacking through jungle, and occasional encounters with elephants, bears and snakes, as well as leeches and ticks.
Out in the field, the team collects leopard scat to find out which animals they are hunting – leopards are not picky eaters and their diet includes deer, monkeys, wild boar, porcupines and hares.
Watson hopes that WWCT’s data will help to shape development plans that make space for leopards. If corridors between forest patches and buffer zones around protected areas are safeguarded, both humans and animals could thrive. Watson is dedicated to ensuring that these “beautiful, fabulous creatures” survive.