At risk: the leopard of Sri Lanka

The capture of a leopard on an island near the western coast of Sri Lanka in the past year has become a symbol of an attempt to save the species from extinction. The five-year-old…

At risk: the leopard of Sri Lanka

The capture of a leopard on an island near the western coast of Sri Lanka in the past year has become a symbol of an attempt to save the species from extinction.

The five-year-old male is one of only three or four reported to be living in Sri Lanka in addition to the estimated 3,000 that live in India.

Photograph: Walter Zweifel/MKR (not for publication)

Last October, Sri Lanka’s last leopard was captured on Ranawaka island, about six miles off the western coast of the country. One month later, a 50-kilogram female was captured on another island 15 miles further out to sea.

Now the last remaining leopard in Sri Lanka is in quarantine in a room at Sri Lanka’s national park headquarters in Negombo, under the watchful eye of wildlife managers and veterinarians.

“The future of Sri Lanka’s leopards is very uncertain,” says the park’s chief veterinarian, Imok Wijeratne. “They are covered in leopard skin, skin and nails, and anyone who comes near them can be mauled to death.”

Veterinarians are attempting to raise public awareness by issuing pendants that bear a symbol of the Sri Lankan leopard as well as the world leopard.

The leopard was born in the wild on Birova beach in the eastern Dambulla district and was raised as a cub on Ranawaka island. When the animal was younger, it would often accompany its mother to the fields where she would feed the young leopards.

Photograph: Walter Zweifel/MKR (not for publication)

“There has been no leopard sighting on Ranawaka island since they were captured,” says Zweifel. “The closest they get to the mainland is the jungles in the southern part of Sri Lanka. They can roam for hundreds of miles on a daily basis.”

The Ranawaka leopard, like the others, is called a leopard, not a tiger, because of the similarities between the two species and because the name means “wandering mother.”

The goal of the international campaign is to help reintroduce the leopards to Sri Lanka by 2022, when Sri Lanka marks its 50th year of independence from Britain.

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