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What is needed to keep Sri Lanka’s leopards roaming free?

What is needed to keep Sri Lanka’s leopards roaming free?
By Jagath Gunawardana

On Dec. 31, a fully grown male Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) was found shot and killed at the famed Uda Walawe National Park. It was also reported that the forelegs of the majestic beast had been severed and its teeth pulled out, giving rise to a fresh public debate about the protection afforded to this charismatic species and whether the current conservation efforts are sufficient.
The Sri Lankan leopard is the largest of the four wild cat species found in Sri Lanka, and the apex mammalian predator on the island. It is also a charismatic large animal that is popular among locals as well as tourists. There are some who visit Sri Lanka mainly to view leopards. It is a favourite subject of wildlife enthusiasts and widely photographed.

The leopard has been protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance since 1964, the first wild cat to be given legal protection. The initial legal protection was partial, as it was still possible to kill a leopard by obtaining a permit to do so. This situation remained so until 1993, when an amendment to the law made the leopard a fully protected species, along with the jungle cat (Felis chaus), the other wild cat that was unprotected until that time.

The other two wild cat species in Sri Lanka, namely the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) and the rusty-spotted cat (P. rubiginosus), were given protected status in 1970. That means the fishing cat and the rusty-spotted cat had more protection under the law than the leopard from 1970 to 1993.

Legal protection

The last amendment to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance in 2009 moved all four species into the newly established “strictly protected species” category. It is an offense to main, injure, harm or kill a leopard, or to keep a live animal, a dead body or any part of a body. It is also an offense to sell or expose to sell a dead body or any part or trade in live animals.

The offenses extend to the use of any implement, instrument or substance to commit any of these offenses. Furthermore, all these offenses are deemed to be cognizable offenses, that is, the offender can be arrested without a warrant. They are, in addition, deemed to be non-bailable offenses as well.

It is seen that there are quite strong legal provisions to protect the leopard in Sri Lanka. However, it is the enforcement of these provisions which is still the weakness. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) which is entrusted with the protection of all animals and plants and a large number of protected areas declared under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, is severely understaffed.

It does not have enough staff to proactively give protection to species and habitats; the staff serve mainly to protect the habitats and also to take action against offenders. The Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance has empowered the police too, but the police are entrusted with a myriad of law-and-order issues and also lack specialized training on animals and plants.

Another vital area that needs to be revamped is the capacity of the professional staff within the DWC, and this needs more officers and more training. This includes, but is not limited to, specialized subject areas such as the identification of animals and plants by genetic testing, detection and producing expert evidence before courts during prosecution, animal forensic studies, and coordinated operations with other state institutions.

The last amendment introduced a provision that allows any officer in the DWC of the rank of ranger or above, and who has more than 10 years of experience, to become an “expert witness” in a prosecution. There is a need to provide more training in specialized areas to make the best use of this provision too.

Need for proactive measures

The conservation and the protection of the leopard needs other proactive measures as well. Even though the leopard holds such an important segment in the tourism sector, given how popular wildlife tourism is, the authorities are yet to team up with wildlife authorities to have a comprehensive plan of action to protect leopards so that tourists will still be able to see them in the future.

Such an action plan needs to be multi-dimentional, tourism being one dimension. There are leopards in both the low-country wet and dry zones, and in the hill country up to the highest elevations, with a population in Horton Plains National Park itself. Hence it is needed to consider the populations of the leopards within and outside the protected areas and to have conservation and management actions to cover both these populations.

It is said that there are no more than 1,000 leopards remaining in the wilds of Sri Lanka. Furthermore, the subspecies found in Sri Lanka is an endemic one, found nowhere else on Earth.

But a number of leopards continue to be killed each year, both intentionally and accidently, taking a toll on the already low population. This animal is included in the National Red Data List as a threatened species within Sri Lanka.

It is very clear that time is fast running out for this charismatic carnivore and therefore urgent management action is needed to save this unique population for the future.

*Jagath Gunawardana is a Colombo-based environmental lawyer, lecturer and naturalist.

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