After the Yala study we decided to broaden the scope of the work to look at the island-wide distribution of the species, feeling that effective species-level management plans would not be profitable without a prior understanding of where the leopard was – and wasn’t. We also wanted to investigate non-protected areas as these might be important for leopard movement and the connection between sub-populations and would be the first regions encroached as the island’s human population and socio-economic development increased.
In 2003 we therefore started work in the Dunumdallawa forest reserve in Kandy, a small (~ 5km²) terminal patch forest surrounded by tea estates, village home gardens and the city itself. Actually seeing leopards here would be next to impossible as the intense human pressure means that for leopards being visible is not advisable. As a result we used camera traps and spoor/sign surveys to investigate the leopard presence in this forest. Getting a camera trap image of a nursing female leopard walking along one of the main forest reserve paths in the middle of a November night after so many hours of tracking and so many nights of trapping remains one of the most satisfying single events of the projects history.
Of course coming face to face with that same female and her cub early one morning on the high slopes of the reserve was also pretty special. We all rounded a bend in the narrow trail at the same time and I don’t know who was most surprised. The mother expertly slipped away into the long grass while the startled cub fled straight up the trunk of tree beside the road allowing me to stand and gaze at him for a few wonderful seconds – and even get a grainy photo with my camera trap camera - before he scrambled down and rushed into the long grass to join his mother.