RUHUNA (YALA) NATIONAL PARK BUFFER ZONE
With the permission of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), the WWCT began work in the Ruhuna (Yala) National (YNP) Park Buffer Zone in June 2018 as part of its ongoing, island-wide Leopard Project. The overall objectives to the study are twofold: The first is to establish leopard presence and land use in these buffer zone areas of the YNP, as well as to determine prey availability and how it may influence the overall leopard population here. The second is to assess the impact of retaliatory killings by cattle herders on the number of leopard deaths in these border areas. The project is being carried out in three phases, expanding the area of study with each phase.
This is a key research area as the dairy industry in Sri Lanka is being intensified, and non-traditional methods of cattle farming are being promoted. This runs the risk of cattle and wildlife coming into closer contact. This possible competition for space and resources may subsequently lead to wildlife-human conflict scenarios. To that end, a side study on cattle herders’ perceptions on depredation versus actual depredation loss from leopards was conducted. Moreover, the efficacy of giving protective cattle pens to herders (a project carried out by the corporate sector) was also looked at to determine whether their use will aid, or further hinder, in the continued conservation of the leopard and wildlife in the area.
Additionally, a comparative study on leopard land-use, cattle husbandry, depredation, and owner perceptions between the YNP buffer zone and the WWCT’s Central Highland study area is being conducted. This will allow the WWCT to understand the differences in land use by leopards between buffer zones in two different landscape types – arid zone and sub-montane wet zone – in Sri Lanka. The comparison may also reveal how cattle husbandry methods, which vary between the two sites, can impact leopard prey availability, predation, and resultant retaliatory killings by cattle farmers.
Phase I (July 2018 – 2019)
The border areas outside of, and adjacent to, the electric fence of YNP Block I, at the Palatupana park entrance was chosen as the study area for Phase I. Starting in July 2018, camera trapping was initiated across 13 set station locations. Due to theft only 9 stations produced any usable data. Interviews with approximately 50 cattle farmers were also conducted, some of whom received protective pens by the Cinnamon Lodge as a separate, private corporate initiative.
Overall, the most predominant species found in this area were domestic bovids. Prey species are also present across the area but their smaller numbers, in comparison with the cattle and buffalo, is a less-than-ideal scenario for a national park buffer zone. This result could hint at a possible change in leopard prey selection (cattle over wild prey), leading to increased, future conflict scenarios with cattle herders. Additionally, the abundance of cattle could mean more competition for grazing vegetation with prey species Both of these factors will be closely monitored and analysed. All four of Sri Lanka’s wild cat species were also detected in the area, albeit at a relatively low frequency, proving the importance of a buffer zone.
Interviews with cattle owners/herders in the YNP buffer study site showed that the primary issue of cattle loss, for them, is theft followed by disease and cattle wandering off. The loss of cattle due to depredation by leopard was the 4th reported cause. However, it is the negative feeling of farmers toward leopards (based on perceived cattle loss by leopard) that poses a significant threat to the leopard population in this shared area.
Phase II (January 2020 – ongoing)
This phase was initiated in January 2020. Camera trapping stations were set up at 9 locations in the Nimalawa Sanctuary as well as inside the electric fence on the Palatupana side of Block I. Due to the Covid-19 lockdown and restrictions, this study area has remained smaller than originally planned.
The WWCT documented 13 leopards (7 females, 3 males, 3 unknown) using this buffer area, including 1 female who was also seen using Block I of YNP. Focusing more on forested areas in this Phase, wild prey species had a higher frequency of detection against domestic cattle. The continued presence of cattle however, even within sanctuary boundaries, could lead to direct food competition between domestic and wild species. Of note, there is evidence of the use of snares and small explosive devices (haka pattas) being used throughout this buffer area and within the Nimalawa Sanctuary for poaching, and eventual consumption, of animals. The extent of these threats on the wildlife here will need to be assessed by continued monitoring. Monitoring will also help determine key locations for increased anti-poaching patrolling to prevent further illegal activities from occurring.
The WWCT hopes to expand the current area of study and incorporate the Katagamuwa buffer zone area in this next phase. To assess prey consumption and any potential shift in prey selection, leopard scat analysis will be carried out where possible. To monitor the grazing effects by cattle, vegetation plot enclosures (as seen in work done in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania) are to be established. Finally, to gain a more robust understanding of land use and population of the leopard, remote camera monitoring will be continued in locations inside and outside Block I, and within all selected buffer areas.
For more detailed accounts of work in this area, please see the following attachments.