This article is concerned with leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) populations adjacent to or in the vicinity of Municipal areas and towns. During our ongoing leopard survey within the island we have been monitoring populations of leopard that coexist in areas close to human populated zones. The Dunumadalawa forest reserve (Wakara watte) located within the Municipal limits of the town of Kandy, Central Province, Sri Lanka is one such area. We conducted leopard research within this reserve from October, 2003 until May, 2004. There are many other areas in varying habitat zones that fall under similar categorizations as Dunumadalawa and encounter the same issues addressed in this article.
We are aware of the low-level human-leopard conflict that is occurring on the periphery of many reserve lands. This conflict is essentially in the form of some border-area residents complaining that the leopards within the reserve are periodically killing both livestock and pet dogs. Over the course of the eight months that we conducted our study in the Dunumadalawa area we have seen evidence of this conflict and had conversations with many area residents regarding this problem. It has been brought to our attention that some residents have called on the DWLC to do something about this perceived conflict and that the possibility of translocating one or more leopards from this reserve has been discussed.
We believe that the translocation of a leopard or leopards from this watershed reserve or any other area is not a worthwhile option. The reasons for our objections to this have largely come about as a result of our field research in the reserve, as well as our four years of ongoing leopard research in the country and many years of prior work in the field of rehabilitation and reintroduction of other species. In addition to this a literature review and communications with other international scientists regarding translocations has also turned up a strong case against translocation. A study concentrating on monitoring man-leopard conflict and follow up of tranlsocated leopards, just released by one of our colleagues in India (Athreya et al. 2004 http://www.ncra.tifr.res.in/~rathreya/JunnarLeopards/ is also strongly recommending against this option. Another excellent reference regarding this issue comes from P.H. Hamilton’s 1981 report entitled “The leopard (Panthera pardus) and cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) in Kenya: Ecology, Status, Conservation, Management”.
The reason we bring this topic into the public forum at all is to make it known that translocations as a possible solution should it be considered in any case is not a viable option, especially in a country where fortunately such conflict is low. We also set out recommendations that must be seriously considered in this time of ‘development’ in Sri Lanka if conflict is to be kept at a low and any escalation prevented.
Reasons Against translocations:
Translocating wildlife, especially top predators such as the leopard, should only be used as a last resort.
Wild animals gain a great deal of knowledge about all aspects of survival from their nurturing in the wild. This is particularly true of higher order mammals such as the leopard. Transferring an animal from one habitat type into a different, alien habitat usually results in the inability of the animal to adapt to its new surroundings. A new prey base, new competitors and the potential of a new climate can have tremendously adverse effects on the survival potential of the animal in question. Moving a leopard from the hills to Yala, Knuckles or even to Horton Plains for instance would be essentially equivalent to shooting the leopard in the first place.
Drugs required to affect a translocation in the wild are notoriously difficult to administer in appropriate doses. This situation is escalated when no prior monitoring of the animal is conducted, as is the case in most translocations.
Sri Lanka does not appear to have open areas in which to introduce new animals. Moving a leopard from one area (e.g. Dunumadalawa) into another area is a disturbance to the new area. Even if the problems with habitat adjustment described above are ignored, the translocated leopard would be unlikely to survive because he/she would be placed into an environment already inhabited by an existing leopard population. Leopards are territorial and unlike some other species, do not simply move over to accommodate new arrivals; instead it is likely that the new arrival would be constantly harried by the existing population. In all likelihood it would be killed or constantly moved from one location to another with no ability to establish itself in the new environment. If a translocated animal did manage to establish itself in the new environment it would be at the expense of an already existing member of the population. In either event the net effect on the Sri Lankan population would be to lose one leopard. While in extreme cases the zoo might appear to be an option, the Colombo zoo is already badly overburdened with captive leopards.
There is more than one leopard living in these forest areas/reserves. We have detected a minimum of three leopards (2 adult) that live (resident) within the Dunumadalawa reserve and it is very possible that at least one more utilizes the reserve as part of its home-range. There is one female and her presently one to one and a half year old cub who are resident in the reserve and one adult male whose home range includes the reserve. Furthermore it is likely that another female utilizes certain segments of the reserve as well as the occasional inhabitation by young animals, possibly prior litters of the females. Therefore it would take a considerable effort to remove all of the leopards from the reserve. It is a distinct possibility that the reason for the increase in the perceived conflict over the course of the last few months (end 2003-begininig 2004) is because of the existence of the mother and cub. Female leopards need to kill more frequently when they have young and often they rely on easier prey to minimize energy expenditure. This appears to be consistent with the oscillating trend of dog deaths which seems to peak periodically and then decline again approximately every two years (time span between cubs). This scenario that is occurring at Dunumadalawa is reflective of other populations living adjacent to and in reserves and forested areas close to human habitation. Our surveys show similar trends in village areas in Bogawantalawa, Agarapatana, Wilgamuwa, Galgadawela, Kaikawala, Meemure and areas around Heycock mountain (S. Wimalasuriya personal communication).