To protect our Wildlife we must conserve our Wilderness and for our Wilderness to be meaningful our Wildlife must be able to roam free within it.
Entry 1

by Anjali Watson on 10/10/2010 12:00:00 AM


Anjali and I started conducting leopard research here in Sri Lanka in 2000 in response to the dearth of such research on the island. Having been born and raised in Sri Lanka, Anjali has always had an affinity for the leopard, the only big cat to be found on the island. She felt that there was a glaring knowledge gap with regards to the basic ecology of the species. At the time, elephants dominated any and all wildlife headlines here and strangely, the leopard, charismatic and visually stunning though it may be, was not accorded the level of conservation or management importance that we felt was its due.

We had just returned to Sri Lanka after spending a couple of years working on a primate project in Panama in Central America and had both previously spent time working on the Smithsonian Polonaruwa Primate Project in the north central part of Sri Lanka, but now we felt it was time to start work on our own. Given the aforementioned lack of information about the species, and its potentially important role as top carnivore in the system, the leopard was the obvious candidate upon which to initiate a study.

We selected Block I of Yala National Park in the arid south-eastern coastal strip for a couple of reasons – it was relatively well protected and the leopards fairly well habituated allowing them to be studied by observation. We felt this population would provide a suitable baseline for further work in other parts of the country. Our two years spent studying the Yala leopards was incredible. We learned a great deal about this elusive cat’s ecology and behaviour as we were able to identify individuals and follow them closely for a prolonged period. This enabled us to understand something about their ranging, feeding and sociality and led to further questions about the importance of evolving without intra-guild competition.

Entry 2

by Anjali Watson on 10/9/2010 12:00:00 AM


After the Yala study we decided to broaden the scope of the work to look at the island-wide distribution of the species, feeling that effective species-level management plans would not be profitable without a prior understanding of where the leopard was – and wasn’t. We also wanted to investigate non-protected areas as these might be important for leopard movement and the connection between sub-populations and would be the first regions encroached as the island’s human population and socio-economic development increased.

In 2003 we therefore started work in the Dunumdallawa forest reserve in Kandy, a small (~ 5km²) terminal patch forest surrounded by tea estates, village home gardens and the city itself. Actually seeing leopards here would be next to impossible as the intense human pressure means that for leopards being visible is not advisable. As a result we used camera traps and spoor/sign surveys to investigate the leopard presence in this forest. Getting a camera trap image of a nursing female leopard walking along one of the main forest reserve paths in the middle of a November night after so many hours of tracking and so many nights of trapping remains one of the most satisfying single events of the projects history.

Of course coming face to face with that same female and her cub early one morning on the high slopes of the reserve was also pretty special. We all rounded a bend in the narrow trail at the same time and I don’t know who was most surprised. The mother expertly slipped away into the long grass while the startled cub fled straight up the trunk of tree beside the road allowing me to stand and gaze at him for a few wonderful seconds – and even get a grainy photo with my camera trap camera - before he scrambled down and rushed into the long grass to join his mother.

Entry 3

by Anjali Watson on 10/8/2010 12:00:00 AM


Our work has continued in Dunumadallawa to the present day as we maintain monthly track surveys and continue to put camera traps in the reserve to monitor the leopards there. We have had 3 students from Sabaragamuwa University in Belihul Oya undertake their final year undergraduate theses here with work ranging from leopard diet to prey censusing and leopard resource selection. During the course of this work we got another photo of the original female and a new cub, 6 years after getting that first memorable shot. This piece of information is vital as it shows that she is resident in the reserve (or at least includes the reserve within her home range) with a long tenure and repeated cub rearing. This highlights the importance of even small forest patches such as this.

Entry 4

by Anjali Watson on 10/6/2010 12:00:00 AM


The leopard project’s work is not restricted to Dunumadallawa however as we have also been conducting presence/absence surveys throughout the hills and another more detailed comparative study in the Agrapatana Arboretum which sits in the high hills beside the Agra-Bopats forest reserve. This is the heart of tea estate country with miles upon miles of well trimmed tea bushes crowning rolling hills that once supported a teeming array of wildlife. Leopards still use the border tea estates to connect between forest patches and also as extensions of their ranges. Leopard activity in this area is higher than in the heavily urbanized area around Dunumadallawa. The forest here is thick and lush, with trails changing with the seasons and almost impenetrable when it is wet. Still we have managed to get some camera trap photos of leopards there, particularly a young adult female that was frequently using the Arboretum, a re-generating patch of old tea land.

2010/2011

by Anjali Watson on 10/5/2010 12:00:00 AM


Along with school programs and awareness building, our main focus at the moment is a presence/absence survey of leopards in the north and east of Sri Lanka. This area was badly affected during the long civil conflict and only now are areas opening up for re-settlement, once mines are cleared. We want to know what the status of wildlife populations are in these areas as post-war development is going to have a profound impact on the ecology of the region. We are maintaining a focus on the leopard but also investigating general biodiversity as well as elephant presence. It is important to know what is there now before the land is all converted to other uses so that we can anticipate some of the issues that might arise after re-settlement. This area – the Wanni - used to be one of the most famous jungles in the country during colonial times, when hunting expeditions would set off to bag staggering numbers of elephants, deer, wild boar as well as leopards. It is fortunate that in Sri Lanka there is a conservation ethic that runs through ordinary life and also crosses cultures, making the concept of valuing and protecting wildlife – and through them vital ecosystem services – something realistic and attainable.

This is an important time in the country as for the first time in 30 years there is no great constraint on growth, development and entrepreneurship. The island is relatively small (65 000 km²) and the population relatively large (>21 million) so space for both humans and wildlife will be at a premium. We are dedicated to attempting to ensure that both can flourish here together, co-existing in the way that they have for many centuries.

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