Anjali Watson is a Sri Lankan conservationist on a mission to save the leopard population in her country. For 26 years Sri Lanka was involved in a devastating civil war that not only took the lives of thousands, but devastated the environment in the country as well. The combination of war, climate change, and deforestation has left the residential leopards basically homeless and isolated into small areas within the little forestland that’s left.
According to Watson, it’s impossible to tell how much the leopard population in Sri Lanka has decreased since the war, however, we do know that about 70% of their habitat was destroyed and only 750-1,000 leopards remain in the country.
Habitat destruction hasn’t been the only threatening force destroying the leopard population either, as multiple leopards have been accidentally killed by getting caught in wire snare traps that are typically used to hunt wild boar and deer for food.
“As Sri Lanka’s top predator, and its only big cat, the leopard plays a key role in Sri Lanka’s ecosystem. We call it an umbrella species because taking steps to save leopards protects all the other species that share their forest home,” Watson said in an interview with CNN.
Watson also stated that she was living in Canada when she met her husband and decided to move to Sri Lanka to help with wildlife conservation in general, as both her and her husband were passionate about the issue. In 2000 the two moved to the country to launch a “pilot program” that was focused on observing leopard populations in the Yala National Park.
Back then, however, Watson stated that there was little to no knowledge about the species of leopard living in Sri Lanka, and in order for them to truly protect the species from further endangerment, they had to learn more about their lives and roles they played within the overall ecosystem. Watson stated that their first major goal back then was to count the entire species within the area to see what kind of population they were working with.
They were able to collect data on the leopards’ population size by using remote cameras that were placed all throughout the country. These cameras were equipped with motion detection technology, allowing Watson and her team to be notified every time a leopard was present at a certain location and snap a photo. They were able to differentiate each leopard because every single one has its own unique pattern of spots.
From there they were able to launch the Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust (WWCT) in 2004, which now has four major headquarter locations in Sri Lanka. Now, their motion sensor camera technology has vastly expanded, giving them greater access to more of the land. The fact that a lot of the habitable land for these leopards has been destroyed does work in the group’s favor, as there are fewer areas to cover with cameras and observe the species while protecting them as well.
“Installing the cameras is often grueling work. It can involve long drives on spine-rattling, rocky tracks, clambering up hillsides, bushwhacking through jungle, and occasional encounters with elephants, bears and snakes, as well as leeches and ticks. Out in the field, our team collects leopard scat to find out which animals they are hunting — leopards are not picky eaters and their diet includes deer, monkeys, wild boar, porcupines and hares,” says Watson.
Watson went on to discuss how WWCT’s long term plan is to use all of the data they’ve been collecting to help shape preservation grounds and new areas of land in which the leopards can roam free without fear of destruction or death. Watson claims the dream is to create secured buffer zones between protected areas for wildlife and the standard forest patches to ensure that this species has a chance to survive, and recover.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.