Sri Lanka’s leopards are under threat, but this woman is determined to save them

Sri Lankan conservationist Anjali Watson says that as the forests that leopards live in are cut down for crops and houses, big cats are being squeezed into areas of wilderness that are not connected to each other.

“We lost a lot of leopards,” says Watson. No one knows how many leopards roamed the earth before the war, but about 70% of the animal’s habitat was destroyed, leaving only 750 to 1,000 adult leopards left, she says.

Moreover, leopards run the risk of being snared. Wire traps are commonly set for wildlife, including wild boar and deer, but they are indiscriminate about what they catch.

As Sri Lanka’s top predator and the only big cat, the leopard “plays a key role” in Sri Lanka’s ecosystem, Watson says. “We call it an umbrella species,” she says, because taking action to save leopards protects all other species that live with them in the forest.

Passion for the wild

Watson grew up in Colombo, but “I loved being out in the wild… I have a big affection for animals,” she says.

(Video provided by Chitral Jayatilaka)

In 1994, she moved to Ontario, Canada to study at McMaster University where she met her future husband, Andrew Kittle.

A few years later, the couple, who share a passion for wildlife, settled in Sri Lanka. In 2000, they launched a leopard pilot project in Yala National Park in the southeast of the island. Very little was known about these elusive animals at the time, Watson says. To protect them, it was vital to understand their lives and count them.

Watson and Kittle, who subsequently created Wildlife and Wildlife Conservation Foundation (WWCT) in 2004, currently operating in four locations across Sri Lanka. They are investigating the size of the leopard population with remote cameras that take pictures when motion is detected. Leopards caught on camera can be identified because each one has a unique spotting pattern and their spots are known to never change.

Installing cameras is often a back-breaking job, Watson says. It can be a long drive on rocky paths, climbing hillsides, a walk through the jungle and chance encounters with elephants, bears and snakes, as well as leeches and ticks.

Anjali Watson attaches a motion sensor camera to a tree.

In the field, the team collects leopard feces to find out what animals they hunt – leopards are picky eaters, and their diet includes deer, monkeys, wild boars, porcupines and hares.

Watson hopes the WWCT data will help shape development plans that make room for leopards. If corridors between forest areas and buffer zones around protected areas are protected, both humans and animals can thrive. Watson is committed to ensuring that these “beautiful fairy-tale creatures” survive.