Very recently I travelled to Panama – a remote village between Arugam Bay and Kumana – to meet my old village friends and to visit Kumana National Park. Kumana NP is not so overcrowded like Yala and I was fortunate to photograph a leopard in very close proximity.
This may be the most sought after animal in the world. I have travelled in Kenya and no other animal (with all other big names) attracts tourist attention like the elusive leopard. It’s a brutal hunter with beauty, grace and stealth.
The Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) is a Leopard subspecies native to Sri Lanka, classified as endangered by IUCN. While the real number is not known, experts believe 200-300 to be in the wild while some saying the number is higher. Sri Lanka is one of the best destinations to see a leopard due to high leopard density and its ignorance of vehicles inside National Parks.
Poaching and habitat destruction are the two main threats to this beautiful carnivore. Although few people know, I think there’s a bigger threat than the above.
Leopard, like any other carnivore, would like to hunt with least effort and fights. They therefore essentially look for easy prey. One of the easiest prey is cattle. According to villagers, these cattle are worth Rs. 20,000 to 40,000 (or more) per animal. Since they are in great numbers, the gracing has become a major issue. They have to be driven through the jungle paths into plains in search of fodder. Panama is surrounded by jungle and the sea. Some parts of the jungle are frequently visited by the villagers.
The leopards follow the cattle and kill them whenever there’s an opportunity, mainly at night. Then they drag the carcass to a more concealed place and devour as much as possible. Since they cannot eat all of it in one go, they return to the carcass the following nights. The villagers – who are well versed in jungles – soon find out the carcass and poison it with the pesticides (they refer to the particular pesticide as ‘kurator’).
They told me they used something more potent than the present one few years back. They drill holes in the carcass and pour the pesticide into them. Leopard is killed on the spot when they eat the toxic meat.
Some run away and die in the jungle. Very recently they have seen EIGHT (yes, please believe it) leopards dead by the carcass! In another recent incident, three leopard and one crocodile were dead by the carcass. I just asked how many such deaths they have seen in their life time. One member of the group (who was obviously not so savvy in math) said ‘I would have seen thousands in my life’! Now take the exaggeration out. He definitely would have seen hundreds of such leopard deaths which were neither reported in the media nor given publicity by officials. One day one man has heard a sound from the kraal and ran to see a leopard biting the windpipe of a cow by hanging itself by clinging to the cow’s stomach.
The Leopard was completely ignorant of the sounds and torch lights made by this particular man when approaching the struggling cow! That leopard paid the price with its life as this man has shot it in point blank range. These villagers firmly believe there are more leopards outside the park than inside, just to kill cattle. They particularly refer to ‘kotiya kale’ which lies in between Kumana NP gate and Panama village. When asked about whether they sell the skins, they say they don’t, due to high risk of being exposed. This may be one reason these killings go unreported.
Many believe the leopard to be a solitary animal unless a mother accompanied by cubs. But these villagers say they have groups. I personally think these are temporary groups disregarding their own demarcations and ganging-up just to eat.
This type of killing is not new. It was going on for many years in all parts where leopards live. But little attention is paid to this mass killing. Although there’s no justification for this massacre, these villagers have no alternative but to kill the leopards which make big losses. Unless wildlife lovers pay attention to this, officials will turn a blind eye as there’s no pressure for them to act.
I hope somebody will do a better analysis of the situation and come up with some practical solutions to this issue.