Ritigala Strict Natural Reserve
By Andrew Kittle – March 2015
The tall monsoonal forest that blankets the lower and middle slopes of the Ritigala Strict Natural Reserve admits only occasional pools of light. The resulting impression is of a place shrouded and mysterious, as if unwilling to reveal its secrets too easily. And secrets it must possess in plenty, given that this unique location in Sri Lanka’s north-central dry zone, has long been entwined with the human history of this island. A monastery, a sanatorium and a rebel hideout are all guises that Ritigala has taken on at one time or another over the past ~2400 years while all the time remaining in essence a majestic forest and unusual repository of natural wonders. It is alleged the gods are responsible for this mountain – which is in fact 7 separate peaks, the tallest of which, Ritigala-kanda, is 766m. Legend states that Hanuman himself, the famous monkey god of Hindu mythology, was responsible for the creation of this natural wonder when he dropped a little piece of the Himalayas, replete with medicinal herbs, that he was carrying back to India with which to treat the wounded princess Sita.
The reason we were here was to find leopards. Well, more specifically to conduct a survey aimed at determining leopard occupancy in this important terminal forest. That leopards have roamed these jungle trails and hunted amid the ancient stones is undisputable, but whether they still do is less certain indeed. We had found evidence of leopard presence here a decade or so ago and had the area confidently marked on our island-wide distribution map with a bold check mark. However a recent (2008) biodiversity survey in the strict natural reserve had documented no evidence of leopards here and we had also heard from the DWC staff that leopards were not present. Given the potential importance of this forest as the westernmost extension of the wide swath of dry zone monsoonal forests that extend from Wasgamuwa through Minneriya/Giritale and Kaudulla and on to the Yan Oya which flows just east of Ritigala, we felt a re-analysis was required.
Ritigala, Beginning field work…
By Andrew Kittle, April 2015
A Strict Natural Reserve, visitors are not allowed into Ritigala without DWC permits, with the exception of a small section midway up the eastern boundary which is run by the Archaeology department and holds most of the currently excavated monastic ruins. Therefore there are no roads or jeep tracks and the only access into the reserve is on foot. Even foot trails are limited, given that even walking within the SNR is limited, so our initial reconnaissance trips focused on peripheral walking tracks and the game trails that bisected them. Usually these visits, undertaken in advance of the actual remote camera survey, are very useful in that they provide us with knowledge of the configuration of the landscape and the access points while also providing clues as to areas used by leopards as exposed by their sign. However in Ritigala, despite a number of such pre-survey visits which took us around the entire reserve and allowed some penetration into the steep interior, we were unable to document a single piece of undisputed evidence of confirmable leopard presence. One scat, deposited on a culvert near the DWC office outside the SNR to the east, was the exact size at which it is uncertain whether it originated from a small leopard (i.e. cub or small female) or a fishing cat.
An additional complicating factor was the fact that the Ritigala DWC office insisted that we only enter the reserve accompanied by armed guards due to the threat of elephants. The elephants that frequent this area are connected to the aforementioned PAs in the east but as this reserve is almost completely surrounded by paddy land and chena cultivation, the level of human-elephant conflict here is quite high. Used to aggressive interactions with people, the elephants that use these forests are not necessarily going to slip quietly into the forest upon encounter and in fact, a recent incident had seen a man killed by an elephant on the road to the archaeological site. This necessity of having armed guards accompany us meant that scheduling had to be done according to the availability of DWC personnel. The guards, though willing and interested, were also busy with raids, court cases and administration, which limited our ability to get in and out when we required. However, fieldwork is nothing if not a constant battle with constraints of one type or another be it equipment problems, weather, terrain, un-cooperative wildlife or as in the case here, logistics, so there was nothing to do but move forward in the best way possible.
Field work reveals…
By Andrew Kittle, May 2015
As such we set up a ring of remote camera stations around the accessible areas of the reserve. Given the propensity for leopards to utilize areas even in close proximity to human settlement, it was not expected that this design would greatly reduce the probability of photo-capturing a leopard. At only ~15 km ² , Ritigala SNR is probably only large enough to hold one and at most two adult female leopards with the likelihood that it is also part of a male leopard’s more extensive range. As such, we were not expecting to get many animals even in a best case scenario.
That no leopards were photo-captured during the 3-month survey was disappointing, but not altogether unexpected given the small size of the reserve and the logistical constraints. What was more perplexing and ultimately more worrisome, was the absolute lack of any sign during the survey period. What this indicates is that either leopards are absent from the reserve; are constrained to the upper, less accessible slopes; or that they are not frequently utilizing the reserve. Our camera traps photo-captured 19 mammal species including many species upon which leopard feed such as sambar, spotted deer, barking deer, mouse deer, wildboar, porcupine, Macaque monkeys and both purple-faced and grey langurs. Given this seemingly adequate prey base it seems unlikely that an opportunistic predator like the leopard would be completely absent. Leopards are remarkably adaptable felids, able to thrive in close proximity to humans, often without people realizing that they are there. Thus, unlike the sloth bear, that does tend to shy away from human presence and is restricted to the higher, less accessible slopes of the reserve, leopards typically utilize areas close to human activity as long as there is available prey. This leaves the occasional use of the reserve as the most probable option, possibly due to recurrent persecution. Perhaps the connections between Ritigala and forested landscapes to the east are not as secure as they appear and leopards cannot effectively move between Ritigala and these other areas. According to a number of sources in and around the reserve, there was a time ~ 10 – 15 years ago that leopards and people were in some conflict in this area over cattle. The story goes that people living along the Ritigala boundaries poisoned cattle carcasses and killed off the leopards and since that time there have not been leopards or conflicts. Given leopard ecology, this story sounds far-fetched, since new animals would typically come in to replace any that had been killed within a fairly short period of time. However if dispersal between the larger forest swaths to the east and Ritigala is perilous, this might account for reduced use of the area.
Incursions and encroachments into the SNR are not infrequent occurrences. We photo-captured poachers with modern firearms on two separate occasions during the survey – one of whom cut down the tree on which our remote camera was mounted and made off with the unit (his presence was picked up by a second unit that he did not detect). But is this human interference sufficient to put off the elusive, adaptable leopard? Doubtfully. It therefore seems that the shrouded Ritigala forests are harbouring yet another secret, one which will require additional fieldwork to reveal. To this end, additional, targeted sign surveys and another round of camera trapping, this time in the higher reaches of the reserve, are planned for next year.