On the trail of the elu­sive ‘hun­ters’ of the sam­bar plains

· Ma­jor study on the leop­ards of Hor­ton Plains by Dr. Enoka Ku­davi­dan­age and Ravi Amaras­inghe along with the DWC

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - NEWS - By Ku­mu­dini Het­tiarachchi and Oshani Al­wis

They came, they peered at it with large beau­ti­ful eyes and for­tu­nately for them cu­rios­ity did not kill the cats – the nosy park­ers were an adult and two cubs.

What they were in­quis­i­tive about was a cam­era trap, noth­ing to do with them but set up as a train­ing ex­er­cise which later evolved into a ma­jor study of Sri Lanka’s leop­ard ( Pan­thera par­dus kotiya) not in the Dry Zone where this coun­try’s largest preda­tor strides ma­jes­ti­cally but in the cold climes of Hor­ton Plains.

The videos of the three acted as ‘bait’ to whip up cu­rios­ity which led to the lure of go­ing af­ter more in­for­ma­tion through a tar­geted study from 2015 to 2018.

Trudg­ing off the beaten track, with per­mis­sion from the Depart­ment of Wi l d l i f e Con­ser­va­tion ( DWC), hun­gry, foot­sore and chilled to the bone some­times, the team has “cap­tured” some amaz­ing footage not only of the leop­ard but also of other an­i­mals.

The re­search team com­prised Dr. Enoka P. Ku­davi­dan­age of the Trop­i­cal Ecosys­tem Re­search Netwo rk ( TERN) and Sabaraga­muwa Univer­sity; pri­mary re­searcher Ravin­dra (Ravi) Amaras­inghe and Thilina Ni­mal­rathna; and DWC per­son­nel Sumith Indika Ban­dara, Charitha Lak­mali Wan­ni­nayaka and Piyal Ravin­draku­mar (who was the pre­vi­ous War­den of the Hor­ton Plains Na­tional Park).

The in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tor and re­source provider (for the ex­pen­sive cam­eras and other tech­ni­cal equip­ment) was the Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore (NUS) with sup­port be­ing ex­tended by Prof. Ed­ward L. Webb, Yan Ru Choo and Mar­cus Chua.

Dr. Ku­davi­dan­age and Prof. Webb were the Prin­ci­pal In­ves­ti­ga­tors in the study.

“We set up cam­era traps in Hor­ton Plains purely for teach­ing pur­poses,” laughs Enoka, giv­ing the back­drop of how it all be­gan.

She and Ravi had been en­gaged in con­ser­va­tion work in Hor­ton Plains since 2014 and on com­plet­ing her PhD from NUS had ini­ti­ated ecol­ogy train­ing pro­grammes for a 16-mem­ber group com­pris­ing NUS and Sabaraga­muwa stu­dents and DWC staff.

Defin­ing cam­era traps as a basic eco­log­i­cal tech­nique used to check out the pres­ence or ab­sence of a species or an in­di­vid­ual, Enoka says that the tra­di­tional meth­ods to mon­i­tor the pres­ence and be­hav­iour of an­i­mals are tran­sect lines and ob­ser­va­tions.

“How­ever,” she laments that when car­ry­ing out these tra­di­tional meth­ods, an­i­mals are sen­si­tive to hu­man pres­ence. But cam­era traps en­able the ‘cap­ture’ of an­i­mals as im­ages as they pass back and forth un­aware that they are be­ing pho­tographed.

It was when they were teach­ing their stu­dents how to set up cam­era traps that they caught on video the three faces with big eyes, com­ing and nos­ing the cam­era. “It was amaz­ing,” re­calls Enoka – it was an adult leop­ard and two cubs.

Se­cur­ing the rel­e­vant per­mits from the DWC, they then set about study­ing the leop­ards of Hor­ton Plains in mid-2015, ini­tially with 38 cam­eras at 19 lo­ca­tions.

Ear­lier, they sent out drones to map Hor­ton Plains and get a close-up view of its veg­e­ta­tion. With the find­ings that Hor­ton Plains cov­er­ing an area of 32 square kilo­me­tres con­sists of mon­tane grass­lands and sub­trop­i­cal mon­tane ever­green forests, they picked on grass­lands first and set about ‘sam­pling’ ev­ery square km with two cam­eras each.

This is the sys­tem­atic way of car­ry­ing out a pop­u­la­tion es­tima-

tion, says Ravi.

All this was done in close co­or­di­na­tion with the DWC, Enoka is em­phatic, while also pick­ing the brains of the Wi l d l i f e Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety (WCS) in Malaysia.

“We got their ex­per­tise in iden­ti­fy­ing the in­di­rect signs that leop­ards had passed through, in ad­di­tion to the pic­tures cap­tured by cam­era traps,” she says, ex­plain­ing that they in­cluded hair, claw marks on trees, scat (drop­pings), odour of urine and pug marks.

Hands- on the train­ing was, with the study team be­ing sent into the cages of the leop­ards at the De­hi­wela Zoo to be­come fa­mil­iar with the scents, of course, with­out the leop­ards in them.

Enoka and Ravi re­it­er­ate that spe­cial train­ing is re­quired to set up cam­era traps, with the height at which they should be in­stalled, at what an­gle and on what kind of struc­ture – tree or pole – they should be on, hav­ing to be de­cided on metic­u­lously. Af­ter the cam­eras cap­ture the data, there should also be sys­tem­atic doc­u­men­ta­tion.

Later, they ex­tended the study to the forests too set­ting up 68 cam­eras at 32 lo­ca­tions, cov­er­ing the whole of Hor­ton Plains to get the full sam­ple.

Ev­ery month, dur­ing the study pe­riod the team en­tered the grass­lands and forests on foot, vis­ited the cam­era-lo­ca­tions to col­lect data and changed the bat­ter­ies. A strong plea goes out from Enoka to all her col­leagues en­gaged in re­search and those who are on the thresh­old of such stud­ies to re­mem­ber that “we are en­ter­ing a habi­tat which is pretty much undis­turbed and we have no right to dis­turb the an­i­mals liv­ing there. It is their home and we are the in­trud­ers”.

Enoka and Ravi have had a yearn­ing to cre­ate a link be­tween their re­search and the DWC’s con­ser­va­tion work to en­able the DWC staff per­form­ing im­por­tant work to ben­e­fit from their tech­nol­ogy.

They plan to con­tinue the leop­ard work at Hor­ton Plains, while en­cour­ag­ing the use of cam­era traps to mon­i­tor other en­dan­gered species in other ar­eas. This would help us to see what is hap­pen­ing in Sri Lanka’s Pro­tected Ar­eas, says Enoka, ex­plain­ing that it would give them a ‘pulse’ rate on whether the wild an­i­mal pop­u­la­tions are in­creas­ing or de­creas­ing and whether cli­mate change is af­fect­ing them.

“We will use all of this ev­i­dence-based in­for­ma­tion for the con­ser­va­tion of the Sri Lankan leop­ard in gen­eral and those in the mon­tane re­gions in par­tic­u­lar,” she adds.

A naughty cub that the re­search team has been fol­low­ing. Pho­tos courtesy of the re­searchers

Time for a photo – the re­searchers (from left) Dr. Enoka P. Ku­davi­dan­age, Thilina Ni­mal­rathna, Sumith Indika Ban­dara and Ravin­dra (Ravi) Amaras­inghe at Hor­ton Plains

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