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RUHUNA (YALA) NATIONAL PARK BUFFER ZONE

Update 2022:  Thus far, we have documented 15 leopards using this buffer area, 3 of which have been seen within the electric fence (in the hotel zone) and in the Nimalawa Sanctuary.  Our study has also shown that there is clear overuse of this buffer landscape (including the Nimalawa Sanctuary) by cattle, the high presence of which competes with wild ungulates for food.  There is also a risk of cattle passing on disease to wildlife, and since this landscape is directly connected to YNP, it is a cause for concern.  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.

Work in the Ruhuna (Yala) National Park (YNP) Buffer Zone began in June 2018.  As the dairy industry in Sri Lanka is being intensified, the risk of cattle and wildlife coming into closer contact is higher, leading to possible competition for space and resources.  This potential for wildlife-human conflict scenarios is why the YNP buffer zone is a key research area. 

This is a multi-staged project with two overall aims: 

  1. To establish the leopard presence and land use in the buffer zone areas of the YNP.  This includes determining prey availability, and how this influences the over all leopard population here. 

  2. To assess the impact retaliatory killings by cattle herders has on the number of leopard deaths in these border areas.  Of import, actual depredation of cattle versus actual depredation will be assessed, and the efficacy of protective cattle pens on wildlife survival in the area. 

Additionally, we will perform a comparative study on leopard land use, cattle husbandry, depredation, and farmer perception between the YNP buffer zone and our Central Highland study area.  These areas consist of different landscapes, and understanding the differences of land use by farmers and wildlife, and any extant human-leopard conflict, can help us understand the different needs required for the continued conservation of the leopard and wildlife in the area.

 

Results of 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 and is still ongoing.  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. 

Future Direction

 

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 attachments below.