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Leopard Poaching in Sri Lanka

By Andrew Kittle and Anjali Watson

Over the course of the last four and a half years, while conducting field studies on leopard population in Sri Lanka, we have become increasingly concerned about the severity of the poaching that occurs on the island and its impact on this endangered sub-species. The fact that the poached animals both leopard and other species were almost exclusively from in and around National Parks does not mean that these areas are the most frequently exploited (although porous park boundaries are a nagging problem in Sri Lanka) but rather that this number is the mere tip of the iceberg as far as poaching is concerned. This is due to the fact that it is only in those areas where the Wildlife Department operates that busts are actually made. Contrary to popular belief, the amazingly adaptable leopard is able to survive throughout the country providing there is an adequate prey base and some form of vegetative cover. Unlike an elephant, whose carcass is difficult to miss, a poached leopard is relatively easily dispatched and hidden and it is only through prior knowledge and investigative work on the part of the under-funded and understaffed Wildlife Dept. that any poached leopards are tracked down at all. How many are actually killed each year is therefore unknown.

While a beleaguered government department and national park buffer zones that are home to more people than wildlife both contribute to the depth of the poaching menace in Sri Lanka, it is invariably underlying socio-economic problems that create the climate for poaching in the first place. The eternal struggle between people and the wildlife with which they co-exist is never easy to settle but if the root causes are made clear perhaps some steps can be taken to steady the precarious balance to the benefit of both sides. To begin with it seems sensible to ask two simple questions: Who poaches for leopards? Why? In a sense, the answers are as straightforward as the questions. It is usually local farmers and villagers who are responsible for actually killing the leopards in this country (although the impetus is usually from elsewhere) and they do it for money. That a leopard is worth more to these people dead than alive is indicative of the incredible amount of work that needs to be done in order to redress the balance and provide leopards with a less bleak future. There is a saying in parts of Africa along the lines of “Wildlife pays, so wildlife stays” which effectively encapsulates the logic behind making living wildlife a productive sector of any country’s economy. How to go about making this slogan a reality is complicated and time consuming but it has been proven from time to time by grassroots organizations the world over that it is indeed possible. An example is Operation CAMPFIRE in Zimbabwe where carefully monitored trophy hunting in a community managed area has both reduced the level of wildlife poaching and generated much needed income for the community. Of course trophy hunting is a contentious issue on its own but it’s the broader issue of reliance on an entirely economic impetus for conservation that is troublingly narrow. Too often however, reality dictates that this is necessary, at least in the short term, to address immediate concerns and avert imminent ecological losses. In Sri Lanka it seems a case of empowering rural communities in a way that ensures that it is in their own best interests to conserve the wildlife with which they live. Again these are simple words that need to be translated into positive actions. While individual solutions can be very effective, especially when tailored to specific circumstances, a truly meaningful attempt to solve this long-standing issue requires a committed effort on the part of the government. For, in reality, the people who poach wildlife do so because they have been systematically marginalized both economically and socially. Feeling left out of “the system”, people are encouraged to find solutions to their myriad problems in ways, which are similarly outside of “the system”. If this means breaking laws and carving into the national heritage then that is what will happen for laws become superfluous when survival is paramount.

The real culprits behind any poaching problem are the profit-mongers, who exploit particular circumstances in a destructive and often thoughtless effort to capitalize financially and those who demand the products of poaching so they can adorn their walls, soothe their ills or increase their stature. It is this latter group that is of most concern for wherever they exist the former will appear, all too willing to do the dirty work as long as they also reap their reward. In the late 60s and early 70s it was the fashion industry that was the most accessible target for scorn and action, with leopard skin coats, bags and hats being preposterously turned into the height of chic. Pressure applied by various lobby groups, in addition to growing sensibilities regarding human-wildlife relations, changed consumer opinion regarding the use of animal skins for clothing and accessories. While there remains a flourishing niche market for such accoutrements (consisting of individuals too far removed from the natural world to even understand their own appetites) the fashion industry has ceased to be the major player in the poaching game that it once was. So who has stepped into the void?

Without having undertaken too many intensive covert operations we are only able to give some opinions based on our experiences working with leopards in Sri Lanka for the past four and a half years. There has never been a sustained effort in Sri Lanka to understand the degree of poaching pressure on wild populations either within national parks or elsewhere so, in effect, most theories are based on anecdotal evidence gleaned from first hand experience or conversations with officers closely linked to wildlife protection in the country. The Biodiversity Protection Unit of the Customs Department has revealed a patchwork history of detections of leopard products leaving the country. The biggest find of the past two decades was a 1982 cache of 11 skins concealed in the false bottoms of wooden crates exporting gramophone cones. Confiscated at the Export Office, some of these skins were so fresh that blood was still in evidence. Since that time only two individual skins have been intercepted, both prepared with considerable skill according to officials. The first was found in 1992 in the personal luggage of a British national who had been in Sri Lanka as part of the Victoria-Randenigala development scheme while the second was in a parcel post package, detected in 1996. The British national apparently returned to Sri Lanka for the court hearing but was not prosecuted.

The Indian connection

While many of the precise details and statistics are unavailable for Sri Lanka, there is mounting evidence from India to indicate an extensive and established trade in leopard products in the region. According to Devinder Sharma (Environment News Service) a nationally publicized raid near New Delhi in India on January 28, 2000 seized some 70 leopard skins and 18,000 leopard claws in addition to a scattering of tiger products, indicating that there definitely is a colossal demand within the region. As each leopard has 18 c

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