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.
Ritigala Strict Natural Reserve

by Andrew Kittle on 9/22/2015 11:37:24 PM


By Andrew Kittle – March 2015

The tall monsoonal forest that blankets the lower and middle slopes of the Ritigala Strict Natural Reserve admits only occasional pools of light. The resulting impression is of a place shrouded and mysterious, as if unwilling to reveal its secrets too easily. And secrets it must possess in plenty, given that this unique location in Sri Lanka’s north-central dry zone, has long been entwined with the human history of this island. A monastery, a sanatorium and a rebel hideout are all guises that Ritigala has taken on at one time or another over the past ~2400 years while all the time remaining in essence a majestic forest and unusual repository of natural wonders. It is alleged the gods are responsible for this mountain – which is in fact 7 separate peaks, the tallest of which, Ritigala-kanda, is 766m. Legend states that Hanuman himself, the famous monkey god of Hindu mythology, was responsible for the creation of this natural wonder when he dropped a little piece of the Himalayas, replete with medicinal herbs, that he was carrying back to India with which to treat the wounded princess Sita.

The reason we were here was to find leopards. Well, more specifically to conduct a survey aimed at determining leopard occupancy in this important terminal forest. That leopards have roamed these jungle trails and hunted amid the ancient stones is undisputable, but whether they still do is less certain indeed. We had found evidence of leopard presence here a decade or so ago and had the area confidently marked on our island-wide distribution map with a bold check mark. However a recent (2008) biodiversity survey in the strict natural reserve had documented no evidence of leopards here and we had also heard from the DWC staff that leopards were not present. Given the potential importance of this forest as the westernmost extension of the wide swath of dry zone monsoonal forests that extend from Wasgamuwa through Minneriya/Giritale and Kaudulla and on to the Yan Oya which flows just east of Ritigala, we felt a re-analysis was required.

Ritigala, Beginning field work…

By Andrew Kittle, April 2015

A Strict Natural Reserve, visitors are not allowed into Ritigala without DWC permits, with the exception of a small section midway up the eastern boundary which is run by the Archaeology department and holds most of the currently excavated monastic ruins. Therefore there are no roads or jeep tracks and the only access into the reserve is on foot. Even foot trails are limited, given that even walking within the SNR is limited, so our initial reconnaissance trips focused on peripheral walking tracks and the game trails that bisected them. Usually these visits, undertaken in advance of the actual remote camera survey, are very useful in that they provide us with knowledge of the configuration of the landscape and the access points while also providing clues as to areas used by leopards as exposed by their sign. However in Ritigala, despite a number of such pre-survey visits which took us around the entire reserve and allowed some penetration into the steep interior, we were unable to document a single piece of undisputed evidence of confirmable leopard presence. One scat, deposited on a culvert near the DWC office outside the SNR to the east, was the exact size at which it is uncertain whether it originated from a small leopard (i.e. cub or small female) or a fishing cat.

An additional complicating factor was the fact that the Ritigala DWC office insisted that we only enter the reserve accompanied by armed guards due to the threat of elephants. The elephants that frequent this area are connected to the aforementioned PAs in the east but as this reserve is almost completely surrounded by paddy land and chena cultivation, the level of human-elephant conflict here is quite high. Used to aggressive interactions with people, the elephants that use these forests are not necessarily going to slip quietly into the forest upon encounter and in fact, a recent incident had seen a man killed by an elephant on the road to the archaeological site. This necessity of having armed guards accompany us meant that scheduling had to be done according to the availability of DWC personnel. The guards, though willing and interested, were also busy with raids, court cases and administration, which limited our ability to get in and out when we required. However, fieldwork is nothing if not a constant battle with constraints of one type or another be it equipment problems, weather, terrain, un-cooperative wildlife or as in the case here, logistics, so there was nothing to do but move forward in the best way possible.

Field work reveals…

By Andrew Kittle, May 2015

As such we set up a ring of remote camera stations around the accessible areas of the reserve. Given the propensity for leopards to utilize areas even in close proximity to human settlement, it was not expected that this design would greatly reduce the probability of photo-capturing a leopard.  At only ~15 km ² , Ritigala SNR is probably only large enough to hold one and at most two adult female leopards with the likelihood that it is also part of a male leopard’s more extensive range. As such, we were not expecting to get many animals even in a best case scenario.

That no leopards were photo-captured during the 3-month survey was disappointing, but not altogether unexpected given the small size of the reserve and the logistical constraints. What was more perplexing and ultimately more worrisome, was the absolute lack of any sign during the survey period. What this indicates is that either leopards are absent from the reserve; are constrained to the upper, less accessible slopes; or that they are not frequently utilizing the reserve.  Our camera traps photo-captured 19 mammal species including many species upon which leopard feed such as sambar, spotted deer, barking deer, mouse deer, wildboar, porcupine, Macaque monkeys and both purple-faced and grey langurs. Given this seemingly adequate prey base it seems unlikely that an opportunistic predator like the leopard would be completely absent. Leopards are remarkably adaptable felids, able to thrive in close proximity to humans, often without people realizing that they are there. Thus, unlike the sloth bear, that does tend to shy away from human presence and is restricted to the higher, less accessible slopes of the reserve, leopards typically utilize areas close to human activity as long as there is available prey. This leaves the occasional use of the reserve as the most probable option, possibly due to recurrent persecution. Perhaps the connections between Ritigala and forested landscapes to the east are not as secure as they appear and leopards cannot effectively move between Ritigala and these other areas. According to a number of sources in and around the reserve, there was a time ~ 10 – 15 years ago that leopards and people were in some conflict in this area over cattle. The story goes that people living along the Ritigala boundaries poisoned cattle carcasses and killed off the leopards and since that time there have not been leopards or conflicts. Given leopard ecology, this story sounds far-fetched, since new animals would typically come in to replace any that had been killed within a fairly short period of time. However if dispersal between the larger forest swaths to the east and Ritigala is perilous, this might account for reduced use of the area.

Incursions and encroachments into the SNR are not infrequent occurrences. We photo-captured poachers with modern firearms on two separate occasions during the survey – one of whom cut down the tree on which our remote camera was mounted and made off with the unit (his presence was picked up by a second unit that he did not detect). But is this human interference sufficient to put off the elusive, adaptable leopard? Doubtfully. It therefore seems that the shrouded Ritigala forests are harbouring yet another secret, one which will require additional fieldwork to reveal.  To this end, additional, targeted sign surveys and another round of camera trapping, this time in the higher reaches of the reserve, are planned for next year. 

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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