NAWALAPITIYA LEOPARD RESCUE
Nawalapitiya Leopard Rescue and Trans-location Release
Anjali Watson, March 2011
One morning in February I received an urgent phone call from the Department of Wildlife Conservation chief Vet regarding a leopard that had reportedly fallen into a well. This was following a spate of other calls during the past weeks about a variety of incidents surrounding leopards and other cats throughout the country. I sighed and thought to myself not another one!
A young male leopard had fallen into an unprotected ditch type 20 foot deep well in a mixed forest area in Weralugolla, Nawalapitiya on the 13th of February 2011. Villagers had called the area police as a first response. People around the village were agitated as delays of area Wildlife officers (DWC) occurred. It was at this point that we at WWCT were informed of the matter and one of our officers was sent up immediately to assist in the rescue. However, a wildlife veterinarian arrived on the scene that night but due to the darkness, it was decided not to attempt a rescue till early morning. The leopard spent its night in the cold water; luckily there was a small ledge that it was able to sit on (See Fig 1) in order to stay somewhat dry.
On the 14th early morning, the rescue mission began. A plank platform was built to keep the animal from falling into the water once it was darted with the anaesthetic, the animal was also noosed so as to ensure it stayed above water and did not drown and for ease of hauling up the animal. The people of the area requested that the animal be removed and released away from their area, contrary to my advice that the animal be released in one of two close-by forests as that is most likely from where it had strayed and/or was going to when it had fallen into the open well. Although the wildlife officials tried explaining this to the villagers there was no way they were going to allow the animal to be released in their vicinity, an irony seeing it was they who had called for its rescue. Herein lies the ‘catch-22’ of our people's view of wildlife. Most want the animal rescued and to survive – a praiseworthy attitude that has allowed Sri Lanka to still have so much wildlife within its tiny borders- yet often they do not want it in their backyards even though these back yards are in fact forest. An understandable situation, but if the animal is rightfully in a forest area then surely should it not be able to live here as it has for so long. The older villagers who are used to living in coexistence with wildlife are usually willing to allow for this and it is often the newer more urban villager to the area that is unwilling.
And so due to vehement protests of some of the villagers, it was decided to translocate the young leopard to another forest. The village is adjacent to a forest patch known as Rilagala, which was my first choice for release but because of the objection from the area people the task fell on me to once again quickly find an alternate release location. The animal had not taken the anaesthetic well as it was wet and weak from spending the night in the well; I recommended it be dried down with a heat source but this was not available. But the DWC vets managed the situation well ensuring the animal's recovery.
Finally, after consulting our detailed maps I was able to suggest a release location and communicated this to both our WWCT officer on site and the chief DWC vet who was in touch with his officers. However, due to the difficult access of the terrain and the inability of the transport vehicle carrying the young leopard in a make shift wooden cage to get up to the selected site, another location was needed! Finally the Nuwaraeliya Kandapola forest reserve was selected and the young male leopard was finally released on the 14th evening. An adult male leopard had died (caught in a wild boar trap and succumbed to injuries) in the vicinity some time earlier and so it was hoped that a vacant space would be available for this young male, who would undoubtedly need to stake out his own home range.
At the end, a difficult situation with the cooperation of all of us involved parties was turned into what we hope will be a new lease of life for the young translocated male leopard. A better way to attempt his journey into adulthood we hope than drowning at the bottom of a well.
Young male leopard sitting on the ledge at bottom of the well into which it fell.
Leopard being rescued-rope tied and animal darted
Leopard being transported in makeshift wooden cage on the back of the DWC vehicle.