Sri Lanka is vaccinating its most endangered residents: leopards

(CNN) – It wasn’t always difficult to go to Sri Lanka and see leopards — until the leopards arrived. Hundreds of the critically endangered cats now haunt the jungles surrounding the southern city of…

Sri Lanka is vaccinating its most endangered residents: leopards

(CNN) – It wasn’t always difficult to go to Sri Lanka and see leopards — until the leopards arrived.

Hundreds of the critically endangered cats now haunt the jungles surrounding the southern city of Galle, eating the flesh of the people who lived there.

Now nearly two years into a $5 million conservation program to curb that human-leopard conflict — and at considerable cost — the government is hoping to manage that population by using vaccination.

Most critically, the leopards will be vaccinated against rabies, which is estimated to kill around 6,500 leopards each year, says Malaysian conservationist Nusirwan Ahmad, president of the Sundarbans Leopards Conservation Project, who has been overseeing the vaccination work in Sri Lanka.

“Many people cannot walk around their homes because they have leopard bites. If they don’t go to hospital, they will not be able to protect themselves,” he says.

“We first gave lots of leopard leaflets to educate people that leopards don’t bite and scratch. People are very afraid of leopards now. They are now more responsible for their surroundings. They cannot go to places where leopards are living.”

Survival threatened

The Sri Lankan project is part of a drive worldwide to conserve the leopard — with nearly 1,000,000 recorded across all its geographical areas.

Barely 700 breeding females are left and nine to 10 per cent of them die each year in fighting or hunting, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Those lucky enough to survive that initial struggle struggle on for up to 10 years, said WWF-Sahelin, the wildlife conservation group that manages the Sri Lankan project.

There’s a push to move leopards from the most hazardous habitats to better-favored areas in southern Sri Lanka, while also considering other proposals, such as releasing leopards in makeshift pens to grow accustomed to living off the land, instead of humans.

“They (humans) are showing themselves to be aggressive by killing leopards, so the government has decided to rehabilitate a few leopards to live with us,” said Nusirwan.

Leopards being vaccinated in southern Sri Lanka. Credit: Sundarbans Leopards Conservation Project

The key to the Sri Lankan project, though, is the now controversial vaccination effort.

In every village within a few kilometers of the tiger reserve where leopards live, the Sundarbans Leopards Conservation Project has set up vaccination sites.

People also work in the villages to clean up trash before leopards enter, and people are encouraged to respect the leopards.

“Education is important. We are educating people in the community, explaining the leopard will not attack unless there is a chase, a sound of a car horn,” says Nusirwan.

Only one-third of the funds for the project have come from the government, the rest from private donors. The conservationists have also been forced to rely on leopard food as nutrients.

Feeding is estimated to be responsible for between 15% and 35% of the population’s diet, according to a wildlife consultant for Sundarbans Leopards Conservation Project.

Growing use of the drug cisnidazole for rabies was also problematic, as about 1,000 leopards in Sri Lanka are reported to have been injected with the drug over the last decade.

Stubborn leopards

Although the Sri Lankan government is reluctant to allow leopards to live along roadsides — which animals have been known to do when they are desperate for food — it is still considering other proposals for managing the animals.

Jointly managed tiger reserves in northern Sri Lanka have reduced the number of leopards found in the area, says the Sundarbans Leopards Conservation Project.

But beyond that, the Sri Lankan government is being very cautious.

“This is an extremely sensitive issue. It is still under discussion,” Sri Lankan Wildlife Department official Chanaka Subiratnam told CNN.

Sri Lanka also plans to increase spending on educational programs and is planning to reintroduce a few leopards to additional parts of the country, though experts say that must be part of a longer-term strategy.

Still, Nusirwan remains optimistic.

“People can see the leopards being vaccinated, they can see the leopards outside of their homes now,” he says. “I’m still optimistic.”

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