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A.Kittle & A.Watson – The Leopard Project


The leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) is the largest of four wildcat species recorded in Sri Lanka where it is the island’s only big cat and its top predator. This population has evolved geographically separated from the mainland species Panthera pardus fusca and is now recognized as one of the nine subspecies of Panthera pardus currently extant in the world (Uphyrkina et al 2001; Miththapala et al 1996). While leopards are considered endangered and listed on CITES Appendix I throughout their Asiatic range, this isolation and subsequent sub species designation underlines the precarious status of this island leopard.

The leopard has historically been found in all habitats throughout the island (Phillips 1935). These habitat types can be broadly categorized into: 

  1. zone (<1000 mm rainfall)

  2. zone (1000-2000 mm)

  3. zone (>2000 mm)

Broad lowland forest swaths characterize the arid and dry zones while the wet zone is further subdivided into lowland, sub-montane and montane sections. Intermediate zones are also present and usually form gradations of habitat type. The northeast monsoon, which occurs from mid-October to January, and the southwest monsoon from May to July, directly influence the island’s ecosystems and act to create numerous micro-climatic zones.

Current Status and Distribution: 

Approximately 12% of the country is protected as National Parks while 20% remains forested. It has been suggested (Santiapillai 1986) that remaining populations of leopard are extant only within the country’s National Parks, however this is not the case as there are relatively large tracts of unprotected wilderness and semi wild land still utilized by wildlife including leopards. This cover is highly fragmented but leopards are able to utilize these disparate patches provided that some form of minimal cover connects them. This includes plantation land, forested riparian zones and marginal scrub.

Results from ongoing research in selected habitats as well as an island wide distribution survey indicate that resident populations are still extant in all major climatic zones throughout the country. The exception to this is the more developed and highly populated areas of the western wet zone. While it is expected that populations exist in the north, where a significant expanse of dry zone forest remains in the Wanni jungles, this area has not been investigated due to the ongoing civil conflict.

Currently no numbers are known for the total island leopard population. There have been estimates of island-wide population numbers in the past (approx 400-600 by Santiapillai et al. 1982), however the accuracy of these are debatable as they have been garnered from the extrapolation of estimated numbers from one area of the country to another. Leopard densities in the arid zone are not expected to mirror those in the sub-montane wet zone for instance, putting into question this form of estimation. In addition, almost no consideration has previously been given to leopards living outside protected areas; however current research indicates that significant numbers do inhabit these areas.

For the leopard to survive as a viable population in Sri Lanka it is vital that its Area of Occupancy as well as the Extent of Occurrence be clearly understood. What is being realized is that leopard populations are present and resident in many areas outside National Parks and protected areas.

Map.1 (numbers correspond to list below) displays the current state of knowledge regarding the minimum distribution of the Sri Lankan leopard and its extent of occurrence within the island. The information is from sightings, deaths and signs (scat and spoor). As mentioned the north of the country is not adequately represented. The actual Area of Occupancy within these areas is still being investigated.

Location of leopard populations within protected areas (size of protected area):

  1. Madhu Road Sanctuary (26,677 hectares)

  2. Giant’s Tank Sanctuary

  3. Wilpattu N.P. (131, 693.9 hectares)

  4. Somawathie Chaitiya N.P. (37, 762.2 hectares)

  5. Wasgamuwa N.P. (36, 948 hectares)

  6. Naval Headquarters Sanctuary (18, 130 hectares)

  7. Minneriya N.P. (8 890 hectares)

  8. Kaudulla N.P. (6, 656 hectares)

  9. Ritigala Strict Natural Reserve (1, 528.1 hectares)

  10. Sigiriya Sanctuary (5, 099.2 hectares)

  11. Maduru Oya N. P. (58, 849.8 hectares)

  12. Knuckles Range Conservation Area

  13. Victoria-Randenigala-Rantambe N.P. (42, 088.8 hectares)

  14. Gal Oya N.P. (62, 936 hectares)

  15. Lahugala-Kitulana N.P. (1, 554 hectares)

  16. Piduratalagala Sanctuary

  17. Hakgala Strict Natural Reserve (1, 141.6 hectares)

  18. Peak Wilderness Sanctuary (22, 379.9


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