Written by Staff Writer
Every year in Sri Lanka, dozens of leopards in the Nihaladu National Park face their final days.
These big cats could be shot, trapped or killed for being killed, injured or strayed out of the park.
The leopards are protected but the rules are applied with a broad brush, which has turned this war on leopards into a battle between animals and nature.
Don’t trust the dead animal : Divers drag the body of a leopard out of the water during a hunting party in the Giraviya river. Credit: Amal Jayasinghe/Yonhap via AP Images
Scientists and photographers are trying to raise awareness about the plight of leopards in Sri Lanka.
“Most of the time when we speak to local people, they will bring out photos of leopards shot and killed,” says Pranjan Jayasekara, a photographer at The Leopards Project.
“Some of the pictures are taken by the authorities to which they have been released or by locals. A big proportion of the leopards killed by public have been shot,” he adds.
Documenting the deaths
Locals, led by Ranjan Muthuwatte, have been documenting the killings for years by snapping photos of the carcasses of the animals.
According to Ranjan Muthuwatte , who runs the Leopards Project, several leopards were illegally shot in 2017.
“Local people and local media have printed photos of dead leopards. Some of the local photographs are at the government’s request, who have decided that some killing may be permissible. But in some other photos, leopards are killed without authorization,” he says.
“These photos are not made easily available because of the complicated laws of Sri Lanka to prosecute the culprits. The government and local authorities want to keep the leopards around,” says Ranjan.
Laws regarding the rule of law were allowed to pass after a leopard was found dead in 2015. An autopsy later revealed a skull fragment and broken bones inside its body. Since then, a large section of leopard territory was given protection.
A leopard walks at the day lodge in the Nihaladu National Park, about 70 kilometers north of Colombo. Credit: Samrang Prasad/Yonhap via AP Images
“This was done by the government to legalize leopard killing. But the law made no provision for fines or imprisonment to those responsible for the killing. One man who was convicted of killing a leopard was sentenced to three months,” says Pranjan.
“They don’t believe in the law. They have not paid fines and have not been punished for their actions,” he adds.
Police claim that they haven’t received any complaints regarding killing leopards. However, the killing is undoubtedly on the increase.
Fighting for freedom
Now it is time for the photo project to push harder and work on reform to protect leopards.
“The killing of the animals is brought out to gain attention of the state,” says Pranjan.
The Leopards Project is part of a growing picture of celebrities working on leopard conservation. The global Save the Leopards campaign, launched in 2014, aims to conserve leopards throughout their habitat. One of the most popular campaigners is the Dalai Lama.
The leopards are the latest species to go on the list of potential victims of Sri Lanka’s anti-poaching law, which punishes killing protected species.
Sri Lanka’s National Park policy stipulates the death penalty for any wild animal killing and ‘murder’ of big mammals.
However, there are some loopholes in the law, such as the exemption for the use of cyanide or meat fragments when planning hunting parties.
“Under international pressure, there is a view that there should be no exemptions at all. Poaching laws in Sri Lanka would be properly implemented,” says Sarath Veskanathan, a wildlife expert and president of Environmental Protection Union.
Pranjan hopes to boost awareness and has taken to visiting schools.