After enduring a bloody civil war from 1983 to 2009, Sri Lanka is now at peace and developing rapidly. This is good news for the country as a whole, but the island’s leopards are endangered.
Sri Lankan conservationist Anjali Watson says that as the forests where leopards live are cut down to plant crops and build homes, the big cats are being squeezed into pockets of wilderness that don’t connect with each other.
“We lost a lot of leopards,” Watson says. No one knows how many roamed the territory before the war, but about 70 percent of the animals’ habitat has been destroyed and only between 750 and 1,000 adult leopards remain, she says.
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Additionally, leopards run the risk of getting caught in traps. Wire traps are usually set for bushmeat species, including wild boar and deer, but they do not discriminate in what they catch.
The incredible wildlife of Sri Lanka
As Sri Lanka’s top predator and its only big cat, the leopard “plays a key role” in Sri Lanka’s ecosystem, Watson says. “We call it an umbrella species,” he says, because taking measures to save leopards protects all the other species that share their native forest.
Watson grew up in the city of Colombo, but “I loved being 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 south-east of the island. At the time, very little was known about these elusive animals, Watson says. To protect them, it was critical to understand their lives and count them.
Watson and Kittle, who founded the Wilderness & Wildlife Conservation Trust (WWCT) in 2004, currently work in four locations in Sri Lanka. They are studying the size of the leopard population using remote cameras that take photos when they detect movement. Leopards caught on camera can be identified because each has a unique pattern of spots, and famously, their spots never change.
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Installing cameras is often exhausting work, Watson says. It can involve long treks on rocky, shivering trails, scrambling up slopes, traversing jungle, and occasional encounters with elephants, bears, and snakes, as well as leeches and ticks.
In the field, the team collects leopard droppings to find out what animals they are hunting: leopards are not picky eaters and their diet includes deer, monkeys, wild boars, porcupines and hares.
Watson hopes WWCT data will help shape development plans that make room for leopards. If corridors between forested areas and buffer zones around protected areas were safeguarded, both humans and animals could thrive. Watson is committed to ensuring that these “beautiful and fabulous creatures” survive.