PEAK WILDERNESS AREA & BOGAWANTALAWA VALLEY
Determining leopard occupancy, movement, density, and diet in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka
January 2020 - our continued long-term work here has confirmed that leopards are resident here with female leopards using these ridges as refuges and that males are moving between the mixed landscape of tea, plantation, grassland, and forest to access them. It is vital that we afford these largely unprotected areas protection and improve the habitat within these ridge areas. The Peak Ridge Forest Corridor we hope will be one of many that will be established to afford these highland leopards the refuge they require and at the same time allow for improved human-wildlife coexistence and better watershed management.
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 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 Castlereigh and Maussakelle 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 Bogawantalawa 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 elusive leopard here in this mixed landscape and getting a picture of its movement patterns in this diverse and misty surroundings is definitely worthwhile (Figure 2).
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 Sri Lanka’s other wildcats in this region together with general mammal biodiversity (Figure 3). 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 establish.
The 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 its 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 unhindered.
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.
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 programmes as we move through the estates and work closely with the Department of Wildlife Conservation field staff and estate management to ensure coexistence between humans 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 were received very positively with collective conservation interventions suggested.
Figure 4. Awareness programmes conducted with i) local area police, estate management and field staff; ii) male field workers and iii) female tea pluckers in the field.
Figure 5. Trilingual pamphlet created specifically for addressing problems with human wildcat interactions.