Determining leopard occupancy, movement, density and diet in the Central
Highlands of Sri Lanka
August 2016 – January 2017: Peak Wilderness Area & Bogawanthalawa
Camera trapping was successfully begun in early
August 2016. The first weeks saw glorious weather and setting up was done in
good conditions for the most part. However towards the latter stages
unusual rains for the region set in bringing with it infamous leeches
galore!! Checking of traps meant driving some serious driving on slick,
rocky almost non-existent roads high up mountain passes and moving through wet
vegetation and tea bushes in pouring rain with a multitude of leeches clinging
on to you – a task not for the faint of heart. As the months progressed luckily
the weather turned for the better once again.
However the pay-off has been well worth the effort.
As of now 20 estates between the two reservoirs of Castlereagh and Mousakalle have
been surveyed, with remote cameras in each of the estates and forest locations
all capturing leopard images multiple times over. A study population of 23
individuals has been documented so far within this area. Long term monitoring
in selected locations is ongoing so as to establish movement patterns of
individual leopards and land use corridors in this mixed matrix landscape.
Working in this Central Hills region and in the
Bogawanthalawa Valley area bordering Peak Wilderness specifically, where no
work has been done prior to this project, is quite thrilling; and although work
is much harder than for example in the Wilpattu National Park, the rewards of
seeing the illusive leopard here in this mixed landscape and getting a picture
of its movement patterns in this diverse and misty surroundings is definitely
worthwhile (Figure 3).
We have also successfully been able to accumulate a
good sample size of leopard scat for diet analysis which is ongoing.
Also of import is the establishment and documentation of the other of Sri
Lanka’s wildcats in this region together with general mammal biodiversity (Figure
4). We are also assisting in a forest restoration project at one of the nearby
estates and it is hoped that this will be replicated in other estates too,
informed by the leopard movement patterns this project will be able to
study area will be expanded to include the Bogawantalawa area in 2017. That
this key watershed montane mixed landscape area of tea, plantation land and
forest is home to so many species and that of residing, breeding leopards lifts
it importance for long term conservation.
It is our hope to increase the level of protection of the current forest
in this area and perhaps suggest new areas for additional protection that would
then form a mosaic of connected wilderness within which leopards can move
Figure 1. i) Resident Adult Male (appropriately named Arnold by
our field assistants) photo captured on a misty evening. ii) One of the
resident female leopards repeatedly photo captured at site.
Figure 2. Views of the study site areas; Eucalyptus trees, tea bushes
and forest make up this mixed misty and wild landscape. Our field truck
in the back ground.
Figure 3. A fishing cat, Sri Lanka’s second
largest cat photo captured at one of the camera stations.
Continuing with our Awareness work in this region,
especially with a focus on educating and addressing the local tea estate
workers and their concerns and the importance of wild habitat, 7 targeted
programs covering 4 estates were conducted in May and a further 3 in July/August.
A total of 275 tea workers were addressed in the former programme and had
the participation of regional government wildlife department staff and area
police together with our team (Figure 4). The July/August programs addressed
140 tea related workers and we have had requests for more programs. These
programs are vital especially after the deaths of 8 leopards and 3 fishing
cats in the area most killed as they got trapped in snares intended to trap
wild boar. All snares found were removed immediately.
A trilingual leaflet titled ‘Living with Wildcats’
was created and distributed widely (Figure 5). This pamphlet reminds
people of the simple solutions that can be carried out as part of daily life in
order to avoid incidents with leopards. We continue to carry out these
programs as we move through the estates and work closely with Department of
Wildlife Conservation field staff and estate management to ensure co-existence
between human and wildlife is fostered. Targeted talks to the Tea Trails
bungalow staff and naturalists are also being conducted with the aim of sharing
the larger theme of how research for conservation works. Results of the
study were presented to the estate Managers and Superintendents in December
2016 and was received very positively with collective conservation
Figure 4. Awareness programmes conducted with i) local area police,
estate management and field staff; 2) male field workers and 3) female tea
pluckers in the field.
Figure 5. Trilingual pamphlet created
specifically for addressing problems with human wildcat interactions.