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PEAK WILDERNESS AREA & BOGAWANTALAWA VALLEY

In early August of 2016, the WWCT successfully began research into leopard occupancy, movement, density, and diet in the southern Central Highlands of Sri Lanka.  Using standard, remote camera methodology, 20 estates between the Castlereigh and Maussakelle reservoirs have been surveyed.  Almost all remote camera stations in each of the estates and forest locations detected leopard presence multiple times over.  In 2017, the study was expanded, during a second phase, to include the larger Bogawantalawa Valley area, bordering the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary to the east. 

 

This region is a key watershed comprised of a mixed montane landscape including tea, other plantation land, grasslands, and forest. Our study confirmed not only the presence of high biodiversity, including endemic and critically endangered species, but also the frequent use of Sri Lanka’s small wild cats (the fishing cat and the rusty spotted cat) in the area.  Importantly, it has established that the island’s apex predator and only big cat - the leopard - was not only using this area as movement corridors between the larger Peak Wilderness forests but also as an additional residential refuge.  As such, the WWCT is continuing its long-term research and monitoring in this area to document and understand the demographic, and other ecological attributes, of a leopard population resident in this mixed, largely unprotected landscape.

 

The WWCT’s Ongoing work

 

Our continued monitoring confirms the residency of leopards here, with females using these ridges as resident refuges while males use the larger landscape as movement corridors to move between and access them.  To date, six permanent remote camera stations have been established to monitor the activities of these ridge leopards.  In addition to leopard movement, the long-term tenure by leopards, cub rearing timelines, recruitment, and leopard diet analysis are also ongoing. The continued documentation of Sri Lanka’s other wild cats in this region, together with general mammal biodiversity, is also a continuing goal of our work. 

 

A study population of ~15 individual leopards are under long-term monitoring within the specific ridge area that we have now called the Peak Ridge Forest Corridor (see below).  As of December 2020, the resident population consists of 4 males, 5 females and their varied cubs that actively live on and use this Peak Ridge area. 

 

COVID-19 Complications

 

Unfortunately, due to the ongoing Covid-19 situation and lockdowns, there has been a proliferation in the use of trap snares in the Central Highland area, resulting in the incidental trapping of leopards, and even the death of a rare, black leopard.  Luckily, our resident leopards have not, to date, fallen prey to these insidious trap snares.  Another consequence of the lockdowns and the lack of WWCT presence has been the damage and theft of project equipment, limiting the areas in which photo capture can occur, and compromising the leopard monitoring data.  To manage these new complications, the WWCT has posted signs, locally, warning of the illegalities of using snares and setting fires, for the preservation of the land and its wildlife, while also notifying the public of an ongoing biodiversity project, to hopefully prevent further theft of equipment. 

 

The Establishment of the Peak Ridge Forest Corridor

 

The most important outcome of this research has been the action of bringing together partner estates to create the Peak Ridge Forest Corridor:  A conservation zone that runs along the top ridge between the Maskeliya and Castlereigh reservoirs and has 13 estates that back onto it.  This is also the area that is a large portion of the home range of the resident population of leopards that we have documented. 

 

The WWCT is in the process of replanting a 7-acre plot of released tea land and degraded forest, to improve habitat quality and to encourage a more effective buffer for this conservation zone.  The planting of forest species is underway on the first acre of land on the Dunkeld estate.

 

A dedicated forest plant nursery which is housing several forest plant species for the purpose of this initiative has also been established, and it is the hope that bordering estates will contribute to the rehabilitation of the forest around the Peak Ridge Corridor so as to increase the level of protection it provides to wildlife.

 

It is vital that we afford these largely unprotected lands protection and improve the habitat within these ridge areas.  The Peak Ridge Forest Corridor, hopefully, 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. 

 

The WWCT has begun work monitoring the two adjacent ridge areas, to attempt to identify the leopard population land-use patterns and thereby specifically identify the conservation zones for protection. 

For a more detailed account of the work in this area, please see the reports below

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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.

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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.

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Figure 3.  A fishing cat, Sri Lanka’s second largest cat photo captured at one of the camera stations.

Proposed area for protection - Peak Ridge Forest Corridor

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Peak Wilderness Nature Reserve & Sanctuary

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