Sri Lanka’s ‘national symbol,’ the leopard, is no more

Going into Sri Lanka’s battle with the tiger population, conservationists aimed to save animals through government incentives — but results were disappointing. And they were dealt another major blow in September, when an already devastated subspecies disappeared from the country for the first time in 60 years.

Sri Lanka’s formerly common leopards died off in record numbers in 2016 and 2017, when just five individuals were reported alive, according to the Asiamtra360 online forum.

According to data collected by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the animal’s numbers peaked in 1960, when 136 leopards roamed the island. By 1999, the number had dwindled to just 19.

Experts had predicted that the dwindling tiger population would result in the species’ extinction by 2020.

“The total population of tigers in Sri Lanka is estimated to be 16, exclusively in the Central Province of the island,” Sri Lanka’s Wildlife Ministry explained on its website. “The leopard, once the pride of the forest, is now almost extinct on Sri Lanka’s forests.”

But that dire prediction turned out to be wrong.

And that was bad news for wildlife advocates who figured the government’s removal of incentives to protect the mountain leopard would save its species.

“One of the original protective measures for [a] leopard in the first amendment of National Tiger Conservation Act 1997 was removal of state compensation for the killing of leopards during protection of human lives,” the Wildlife Ministry explained. “However, during the amendments period there is no provision for state compensation for the killing of leopards.”

It wasn’t long before conservationists lost hope for the leopard’s survival — and a fatal blow was struck last summer.

In September, the Wildlife Ministry announced that one of the country’s two remaining leopards — a 2-year-old male named Sowochala — had been reported dead. It was the last time anyone had seen the animal alive.

“The [Environment] Ministry will take disciplinary measures against all those responsible for abrogating the laws and to ensure that all this incidents are prevented in future,” the Minister said.

The meeting that made the announcement didn’t deny that attempts to expand leopard habitat, in the form of more trees and other plant life, may have endangered the big cat.

But it claimed that the animal had succeeded in escaping capture at various points throughout its life.

“We, as a government, wish to respect the freedom of our animals, and they must live with us in peace and tranquility,” the government spokesperson said.

While much of the blame for Sowochala’s death is heaped on humans, conservationists expressed concern for the animal’s remaining siblings, too.

“You can’t find a leopard anymore, outside the Valley,” an anonymous leopard expert told Asiamtra360. “If Sowochala doesn’t have a brother, or sister, or both, or even only one sibling, how can he keep eating?

“It just breaks my heart to see a cub die of starvation.”

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