Sri Lanka’s beautiful small leopard

It’s not for the leopard to change its spots, but for people to change their attitude towards it and other endangered wildlife.

Fossils of early leopard ancestors have been found in East Africa and South Asia from the Pleistocene era of 2 to 3.5 million years ago. The modern leopard is thought to have evolved in Africa 470,000–825,000 years ago and spread across Asia 170,000–300,000 years ago. It is an ancient animal.

The leopard species is named Panthera pardus. There are nine sub-species: P. pardus pardus (African leopard);P. pardus delacouri (Indo-Chinese leopard); P. pardus fusca (Indian leopard); P. pardus japonensis (North China leopard); P. pardus kotiya (Sri Lanka leopard); P. pardus melas (Javan leopard); P. pardus nimr (Arabian leopard); P. pardus orientalis (Amur leopard) ; and P. pardus saxicolor (Persian or Caucasian leopard). All are endangered.

In Sri Lanka there has been confusion over the name given to leopards. Kotiyā is properly the leopard, but due to a misnaming that occurred in the late 1980s, kotiyā has now become the colloquial Sinhala term for tiger, and diviyā is used for the leopard. Although there are no tigers in Sri Lanka, the formal Sinhala word for tiger is viyagraya. A further complicating factor is that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the Tamil Tigers) were colloquially known to the Sinhala-speaking community as Koti, the plural form of Kotiyā.

Unfortunately, the number of Sri Lankan leopards is rapidly declining due to habitat loss, hunting for trade, and local pest control measures. Skins and teeth are widely traded in Sri Lanka, and the canine is worn as a talisman by some village folk as it is said to bring about good fortune. Some parts of the animal are eaten or used in traditional medicine.

With its tawny or rusty yellow coat with dark spots and close-set rosettes, the Sri Lankan leopard is the country’s top predator. Little was known about it in the past, but ongoing studies by The Leopard Project, run by The Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust, show that leopards are still distributed throughout the island both inside and outside protected areas.

For the Leopard: A Tribute to the Sri Lankan Leopard (2003) by Rukshan Jayewardene and originally published by The Leopard Trust offers a stunning array of photographs of this animal while telling the story of its life cycle from birth to maturity. It includes two scientific chapters on leopard ecology and genetics.

American novelist and naturalist Peter Matthiessen wrote in Wildlife in America (1959): “The concept of conservation is a far truer sign of civilization than that spoliation of a continent which we once confused with progress.” The loss of this beautiful cat would be a severe blow to global wildlife conservation and, of course, to Sri Lanka.Sri Lanka Leopard


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