Sri Lanka’s leopard population plunges due

Image copyright Yasmin Tambazwini Image caption Yasmin Tambazwini has helped create a national group against illegal leopard hunting

Sri Lanka’s leopard population has nearly halved in the past few years, amid a campaign by hunters against a global ban on the popular “bush war”.

Research in remote corners of the country has found few leopards surviving, with young females and young males living separately.

Sri Lanka is now in the throes of intense debate over what to do with its remaining leopards.

The Wildlife Conservation Authority has warned its 10 males may be poached into extinction within a few years.

Routine leopard hunts are a cornerstone of the endemic south Asian island nation’s subsistence economy.

‘Precious resources’

Licences were initially handed out for an annual limit of two leopard killings until 2008. The permits were soon converted into indiscriminate permits allowing leopards to be killed at will.

Image copyright JW Image caption Ranges near the town of Sitankara in Galle district were once frequented by leopards hunting deer and leopards raiding human settlements

The purpose-built wildlife crime unit in Sri Lanka had a mandate to hunt down poachers. But it was unable to halt such illegal killings.

Wildlife researchers said ordinary hunters killed their quarry with consummate ease, using pick-axes and razor-sharp hatchets with plastic handles.

And when they could not be caught, leopards were burned alive.

Vinod Varadarajan, the chief of the wildlife conservation authority, said 15 out of 30 leopards killed between 2017 and 2018 were targeted by poachers.

The leopards killed last year were shot dead or stabbed to death with pick-axes or pipes.

“Our leopards are at the most vulnerable right now. Conservation efforts have been successful. But poaching and illegal hunting is going in the opposite direction,” he said.

Image copyright Yasmin Tambazwini Image caption The leopards’ habitat has shrunk because of climate change

“Vulnerable wild cats find themselves on the chopping block. It’s a very precarious situation and we need help from the Sri Lankan government to stop it.”

Mr Varadarajan, who claimed tens of thousands of leopards live in Sri Lanka, said the leopards could live peacefully with some developers within parks and reserves if their species was properly protected.

But he warned that the quest for “precious resources” would continue unless Colombo acted now.

“We’re at the last minute in this battle and we have to stop it,” he said.

“If not, we will lose the last few dozen of them because in the next 10 to 15 years time poaching and illegal hunting will be a serious challenge to the conservation programme.”

Animal rights activists want to create protected areas for leopards that would provide leopards with a permanent place to stay.

Yasmin Tambazwini, 23, was asked to create the Colombo-based Preservation for Conservation of Migratory Species South Asia (PCCS), a national group of leopard enthusiasts.

She wants to target illegal hunting, but keep the government in touch to coordinate action with local hunters.

“Our main aim is to educate the public so that they are no longer feeding cats which they see on the streets, ” she said.

“We want to reduce the number of poachers. People shouldn’t see cats on the streets. That’s illegal hunting.”

The conservation authority hopes to set up a network of “tree-top vigilance teams” – paid for by private donations – and it has also suggested the formation of an early warning system to warn authorities of impending attacks on wild cats.

Ms Tambazwini said she wished the government would include this in its plans.

“Most people don’t know that there is a species that can’t be hunted,” she said.

“It doesn’t think they will be hunted. The law needs to be changed to try and prevent those killings. The government should have more laws in place to protect animals.”

Image copyright Yasmin Tambazwini Image caption Research by Yasmin Tambazwini showed more than a third of leopards in Sri Lanka are under threat

Sri Lanka’s government has said it will crack down on leopard killing by issuing strict penalties, including life imprisonment, as well as reintroducing wildlife crime squad officers to monitor illegal killing.

It is expected to unveil a revised hunting policy in mid-2019.

Sri Lanka’s statistics office says people were killed in 317 leopard attacks between 1995 and 2015, with another 194 attempts being made.

But government figures still do not record leopard attacks, which could increase with the recent reduction in the leopard

Leave a Comment