Species: P. pardus
Subspecies: P. p. kotiya
The Leopard (Panthera pardus, Linnaeus, 1758) is the most secretive and elusive of the large carnivores, and also the shrewdest. Pound for pound, it is the strongest climber of the larger cats and is capable of killing prey far larger than itself. However, the leopard is the smallest member of the genus Panthera, which includes the Lion, Tiger and Jaguar. Historically, the leopard had a wide distribution across eastern and southern Asia and Africa, from Siberia to South Africa, with fragmented populations in the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka, Indochina, Malaysia, Indonesia and China. Sadly, the range has decreased radically due to over hunting and loss of habitat.
The Sri Lankan leopard or Ceylon leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) is a leopard subspecies native to Sri Lanka that was first described in 1956 by the Sri Lankan zoologist Prof. Paul Deraniyagala. One of the most lithe and supple of the big cats, the Sri Lankan leopard holds a mystique like no other. Coming out of its slumber at dawn and dusk to swagger through the jungle environments, the leopard is a creature of both incredibly terrifying strength and beauty. The Sri Lankan leopard has a tawny or rusty yellow coat with dark spots and close-set rosettes, which are smaller than in Indian leopards. The Sri Lankan leopard used to occur in all habitats throughout the island. Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park is recognized as having the highest density of wild leopards in the world. Feeling proud isn’t it? In one area of the Park, it is reported that there is one leopard per square kilometer, an incredibly high number compared to anywhere else in the world. Unconfirmed reports indicate that between 500 – 1000 leopards reside in the wild in Sri Lanka. Like all other Leopards, Sri Lankan leopards are highly nocturnal creatures. The leopard is colloquially known as kotiya (Sinhalese: කොටියා) and chiruthai (Tamil: சிறுத்தை). Usually mother leopard give birth to 2-3 cubs yet there are exceptions with records of giving birth to 3-5 cubs in the wild. After getting matured, in between age 1.5 to 2 leopard mother chases away the kids to find new territories. Leopards are highly territorial and they mark their territories by scent marking and by claw markings. In Sri Lanka there are reports of Black Panthers (Melanistic Leopards) from Sinharaja and from Central Hills.
Two officially recorded Man-eaters, Man-eater of Punani (1924), shot by Shelton Agar and measured as length of 6ft 3inches and another Man-eater was recorded as Man-eater of Pottana. Along Potuvil Kataragama pilgrim route early 1950s. History obscure. Unaccounted.
Boasting the highest density of leopards anywhere in the world, Yala is also home to the biggest of them all. Weighing in at almost 100kg, Ivan the one-eyed leopard enjoys a notoriety in these parts. The Legendary Dominant male leopard “Hamu” was one of the famous leopard in yala and the animal was loved by many of the animal lovers and wildlife photographers. And ‘Ivan’ is reputedly the biggest leopard in the world. There are many famous leopards in Yala and they were tagged and named by Conservation groups and wildlife photographers by looking at their patterns.
Distribution and Eating Patterns of the Sri Lankan leopard
Historically, the Sri Lankan leopard was found in all habitats throughout the country which consists of the wet zone, dry zone and arid zone. leopards have been mainly observed in dry ever green monsoon forests, arid scrub jungle, rainforests, low and upper highland forests as well as wet zone intermediate forests. Now the population has been limited to certain areas of the country which value the conservation of these creatures. Some of the most well-known locations to watch leopards in their natural habitat would be the Yala National Park and the Wilpattu National Park. Leopards are considered as nocturnal animals but they are also encountered during day time. This is mainly during early mornings and late afternoons. These creatures usually hunt alone except during the mating season or when mother and cubs are encountered in the wild.
A study in Yala National Park indicates that Sri Lankan leopards are not any more social than other leopard subspecies. They are solitary hunters, with the exception of females with young. Both sexes live in overlapping territories with the ranges of males overlapping the smaller ranges of several females, as well as overlapping the ranges of neighboring males. They prefer hunting at night, but are also active during dawn and dusk, and daytime hours. They rarely haul their kills into trees, which is likely due to the lack of competition and the relative abundance of prey. Since the leopard is the apex predator in Sri Lanka, it does not need to protect its prey. In 2001 to 2002, adult resident leopard density was estimated at 17.9 individuals per 100 km2 (39 sq mi) in Block I of Yala National Park in Sri Lanka’s southeastern coastal arid zone. This block encompasses 140 km2 (54 sq mi), contains coastal plains and permanent human-made and natural waterholes, which combined allow for a very high density of prey species
The Sri Lankan leopard too is a carnivorous animal while they feed on a variety of species from hare, Sambar deer, langurs and even rats. Eating patterns may also include frogs, birds, reptiles, other types of rodents and even insects. And they hunt wild buffalo calves and even crocodiles and shows cannibalism by hunting small cubs.
Main characteristics of the leopard include the rusty yellow coat with dark spots. The average weight of a male is 170 lb and a female is close to 64 lb. The tail of the leopard is longer than half of its body length when measured from head to tail. The shoulder height is about 45 to 80 cm. Their ability to climb trees comes with the strong muscles that are attached to the scapula. The males are at least 30% larger than females while mature males are supposed to have broad and larger heads. The biggest leopard was reported in 1950’s from Namal Oya are which was measured as 8.8 Ft in length and 113 Kgs in weight. Sri Lankan leopards, in some point considered as the biggest subspecies in the world and yet in the animal world Persian leopard holds the record for the biggest.
Female leopards give birth any time of the year when they do, they usually give birth to two or three cubs. Mothers stay with their cubs until they are about 2 years old. In the world of felines, a mother may raise her cubs for up to two years, depending upon the species and the environment. When the cubs are grown, the mother will run them off and if they meet again, it could be a battle to the death over territory. Such is the case for leopards and tigers. There are some exceptions however years ago once in 2014, Yala National Park a film crew spotted a true family of leopards as in fully-grown male, the female and their two cubs. In leopards basically maternal bond is very strong. Sometimes it does occur for a mother and her young offspring when they see each other later on.
Leopards in Hill Country
There’s few cities in the world that leopards lives among the people and used to roam in urban areas. Such as Nairobi,Kenya, Mumbai,India and Kandy,Srilanka. Leopards have adapted to live at least partly in certain urban landscapes. Sri Lankan leopards can be spotted in the hill country. Every now and then you could spot these creatures at Adam’s Peak, Horton Plains, the Great Western and the likes. Leopards live outside protected areas and have adapted well to living even in habitats close to human settlements. Leopards inhabit a wide variety of landscapes in the hill country, from large intact forest swaths to small (less than 5 sq km) isolated patches of heavily degraded secondary forest. In the hill country, leopards roam a range of landscapes including established and regenerating forests, forest plantations of eucalypt and pine, tea estates and areas near human settlements.
Most of the national parks of the country are within the dry/ arid zone; the montane (mountain) zone currently has only one declared park ( Horton Plains), one Strict Natural Reserve ( Hakgala) and three other protected areas of lesser status (Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, Pedro Forest Reserve and the Knuckles Range (currently undergoing status change).Although some small forest reserves are interspersed throughout the zone these areas have not been considered wildlife refuges, let alone leopard habitat. Leopards have learned to become elusive creatures to avoid encounters with humans. One sign of this is that they are active at night, particularly outside protected areas.
There are two spikes of activity: early in the morning as leopards retreat to their hideout forest patches, and just after nightfall, when they come out to look for prey and mark their territories. In the highlands, this nocturnal behavior is even more pronounced in comparison to dry zone study sites. Researchers warn estate workers to be extra careful at these times and to make enough noise when approaching leopard habitat to avert unexpected encounters. In between 2014-18 nearly 10-12 leopard deaths were reported from hill country itself.
The survival of the Sri Lankan leopard is threatened due to habitat loss and fragmentation primarily with some levels of direct poaching and direct and indirect human-leopard related leopard deaths.
Conservation and Threats
Further research into the Sri Lankan leopard is needed for any conservation measure to be effective. The Leopard Project under the Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust (WWCT) is working closely with the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure this occurs. The Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society will also undertake some studies. The WWCT is engaged throughout the island with targeted work ongoing in the central hills region where fragmentation of the leopard’s habitat is rapidly occurring.
The Sri Lankan Leopard is rapidly declining due to habitat loss and fragmentation, and hunting for trade and due to pest control. Skins and canines are widely traded in Sri Lanka, as the canine is worn as a talisman by some village folks as it is said to bring about good fortune, while certain parts of the animal is eaten or applied to traditional medicine.
On a global context the leopard is classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN and is listed on CITES (Convention in the Trade in Endangered Species): Appendix I. the Sri Lankan Leopard is classified as Endangered due to habitat loss and poaching. There are records of over six specimens of leopards being poached in areas around national parks.
The Sri Lankan leopard was listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
As of December 2011, there are 75 captive Sri Lankan leopards in zoos worldwide. Within the European Endangered Species Programme 27 male, 29 female and 8 unsexed individuals are kept.
Image Credits goes to All Amazing Wildlife Photographers
Rtr. Sethil Muhandiram