One of the magnificent pairs of female leopards of Sri Lanka have been facing extinction. So many males that are breeding — that is, males who hunt — have been killed by hunter who prowl the mountains in search of mountain buffaloes, an upper-class delicacy.
For the past five years, the state-run Game Research and Conservation Institute has faced a mission to rescue the pair, because it has now been established that eating mountain buffaloes is not a valid reason to kill the leopards, as it once was. This discovery was made thanks to data collected about the breeding habits of leopards by the research lab: buffalo and leopard are unlikely to mate, so their breeding patterns have changed significantly in the past few years — as have their food supplies.
This means that the number of female leopards alive today are far fewer than their former totals. The average number of females in Sri Lanka, which is an important leopard breeding area, has fallen from 16 to 10. Recently, Ms Prachi Muniago, head of the Game Research and Conservation Institute, and her colleague Mr Thantlai de Mel, a wildlife technician, were awarded the Humane Society International/Zero Hunger 2017 Animal Welfare Award for Saving Tigers, for their most recent efforts. They captured one of the leopards, there had been sightings of another in the region. In the animal center, the leopard was unable to let any of the offspring out, and its young were traumatized. It was put down.
However, on that same morning, Ms Muniago and Mr de Mel visited a man in the area, who agreed to help them capture and move the leopard for a loan of some quarters for the two of them. He thought he’d only commit once for a year. He ended up helping to move not one, but two leopards, to a new home.
Mr Muniago and Mr de Mel felt sure they were on to something — but even they were shocked by the first two days of the leopard and her offspring. First, Mr Muniago and Mr de Mel gathered the boy together and spent some time picking him up, preparing him for transport, then putting him to sleep. The boy was just four months old and spoke Sinhalese. Ms Muniago and Mr de Mel worried that the adult male leopard might be trying to scare the boy off and take him. “They were like baby leopards,” she said, adding, “if he came to sleep on his back, the male leopard may have thought it wasn’t a good sleep for him.” After some time, the leopard did finally settle down. But what started as a simple transfer, turned into a lab experiment, since Mr de Mel chose to “lay his hands” on a leopard in the wild.
A leopard pup helps a couple transfer a leopard mother and her cubs to a new home. (By Via humane society world animal welfare award)
From the baby leopard’s perspective, it was difficult to see what exactly was going on. One of the leopards moved to a completely new habitat — it had no history, only spotty sightings. Then it laid down dead on the ground. “It’s the oldest leopard in the refuge, so it must have been knowing it was passed and not wanted to do harm,” said Ms Muniago. Mr de Mel then weighed and measured the cub, who showed no injuries from the big cat’s disappearance. So, some months later, the team moved both leopards to the new home. “The leopard mom mom never left her side, and she wasn’t going to hurt the kids,” said Ms Muniago. “The cub was also not shy of the new home.”
One of the two leopards who were rescued at the leopard center. (Via humane society world animal welfare award)
They feed the newborns, as they have not yet gone up for motherhood. Their original home is not far from the site of the poaching. But in contrast to the big cats’ dietary habits there are no mountains to hunt, nor are the buffalo part of the diet. They see a lot of fish and frogs — but it doesn’t seem to be enough.