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Protected leopards under threat in Sri Lanka

Greed and superstition are causing the demise of the island's endangered big cats

UCA News reporter, Colombo

UCA News reporter, Colombo

Published: January 08, 2021 08:30 AM GMT

Updated: January 08, 2021 09:04 AM GMT

Protected leopards under threat in Sri Lanka

A leopard in Yala National Park in Sri Lanka, which has fewer than 1,000 leopards. (Photo: YouTube)

Leopards are roaming Sri Lanka because their habitat has been destroyed and they must search for food in villages.

In 2020, 13 leopards were reported killed in the island nation, mostly in Nuwara Eliya district. The leopards enter villages and kill domestic dogs and even cats.

A villager was killed in a leopard attack on Dec. 30 and another attack was reported on Jan. 1.

Harshani Naagamuwa, an environmentalist from Nuwara Eliya, said leopards and other animals like monkeys, parrots and peacocks have lost their habitats and food because of human greed.

The leopards are killed to obtain their skin, teeth and other body parts. Modern marketing myths have given mystical value to the body parts of the leopards.

People wear leopard teeth around their neck as they believe that the teeth of the big cat offer protection, while businessmen keep leopard teeth in a golden bowl to protect their lives and make more money.

Naagamuwa said that such beliefs have contributed to the loss of these animals.

"Due to deforestation and implementation of new development programs, there is no place for animals to go," said Naagamuwa.

As an endangered species, leopards have been listed in the Red Data Book since 2008. The leopard population in Sri Lanka is 700 to 950.

Under the Fauna and Flora Ordinance, the leopard is a protected animal. Killing a leopard is an offense for which a person can be apprehended without a warrant and carries a fine of 30,000 rupees (US$160) to 100,000 rupees or imprisonment for two to five years, or both.

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A Catholic nun who teaches at a school in the Archdiocese of Colombo said the animals have not yet come to her village. People have gone to the jungle to cut down trees and carry out development activities.

"It is very unfortunate that businessmen and politicians use parts of these large animals like leopards and elephants because of their superstitious beliefs," said the nun, who is the animator for the Nature Lover Society in Colombo. She has served at several convents in the Nuwara Eliya district.

"Politicians and their cronies destroy the forests of this country. We teach the Laudato si’ encyclical of Pope Francis to schoolchildren. The pope criticizes irresponsible development, consumerism, global warming and environmental degradation and calls for all people to take swift and unified global action," said the nun.

"We must also acknowledge that the existence of every animal is necessary for our existence as human beings. The extinction of one or two species of animals is a cause of change in the balance of the environment and has consequences for human beings.

"Pope Francis strengthens and empowers Catholics to fight and take action to protect animals that enhance the environment and its beauty." 

According to the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), out of the 13 leopard deaths reported, 11 died after being trapped in snares.

DWC director-general M.G.C. Sooriyabandara said they have conducted many awareness programs on the use of snares and their impact on wildlife.

Sunimal Adhikari, a nature photographer, said there is strong demand for animal parts in Sri Lanka.

"I believe the leopard is the most beautiful animal in the forest and it is important to protect them and pass them on to the next generation. Investigations have revealed that people inhumanely tie up dogs with wires for leopards as bait," he said.

Naagamuwa urged the authorities to strictly enforce existing laws.

"Educating the public about leopards living in mountainous areas is very important, while protection of the forests helps the survival of these animals," said Naagamuwa.

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