Man-Eaters of Sri Lanka – Part 2

Tales from an Ancient Land

Man-Eaters of Sri Lanka – Part 2

The Human-Leopard conflict in the hill country of Sri Lanka is actually a stark reminder of the social and economic disparity in the country. The region is full of tea plantations produced by British colonials back in the day; most of the laborers working there are poor Tamil women who have no other source of income. Meaning, they have to ply their trade in the vast plantations in order to make a living. But they have a problem… from leopards.

A leopard caught in a snare amid a tea planation

Amid these vast plantations and its environs, leopards roam – though no fault of their own, because technically it is their territory… only now humans have encroached. More often than not, laborers are surprised by leopards and vice versa, which results in leopard attacks. Of course, these are not pre-meditated attacks by a blood-thirsty leopard (only one such case can truly be attributed in Sri Lanka, and that too happened back in the 1920s when a leopard deliberately started attacking humans in a rural hamlet). Instead, the animal must’ve been startled and attacked out of self-defense. More often than not, they flee at the sight of humans. But, there was a singular case back in 2014 when a leopard killed a woman in the hill country; the villagers living in the area [Barcaple Estate] where she was attacked, live in constant fear of leopards. In fact, they are afraid to go out at night and even the school children are always accompanied by an adult.

The estate where the woman was killed in 2014

In 2014 at the Barcaple Estate, a woman went into the jungle with her cattle and was attacked and killed by a leopard. She was accompanied by another boy, who ran back and informed the villagers. When they discovered her she was already dead. The leopard had tried to drag away the body, but unfortunately (for the leopard) the body got stuck between some rocks; the leopard fled as soon as it heard the commotion of approaching villagers.

The dead body of the woman

For filming purposes [of our documentary on the human-leopard conflict] we visited the particular estate and found that the dead woman’s husband and daughter were still living there. We interviewed the woman’s daughter (S. Lakshika), but she’s still too young to understand the impact of the tragedy. She casually related during the interview that she was just in 2nd grade when her mother was attacked and killed. The event was all over the local news back in the day.

The dead woman’s daughter (the trail behind is the same one her mother traveled for the last time)

To date, it is the only serious casualty of a leopard attack in the hill country. The dead woman’s husband has a photograph of the leopard that killed his wife, but what he doesn’t know is this: the leopard is now at the Pinnawala Zoo, where it is incarcerated for life. The leopard is referred to as ‘Namali’ by the zoo-keepers and is now around 12 years old. On a side note, she’s a female leopard [the notorious ‘Man-Eater of Punanai’ was also a female leopard].

The leopard that killed the woman [‘Namali’] now caged at the Pinnawala Zoo

It’s a sad plight for both the dead woman’s family and the leopard. The zoo-keepers say the leopard will never be released, they also informed us that the leopard was beaten very badly by furious villagers when it was bought to the zoo in 2014 [note the above picture of the leopard’s missing teeth]. The leopard is also blind in one eye, though that’s age-related.

Newspaper coverage of the leopard attack from 2014

Elsewhere in the hill country, leopards constantly get caught in snares intended for other animals (like wild boar). Sometimes, these snares can be fatal for a leopard. People living in the estate say they’ve pleaded with authorities several times to find a solution to this conflict, but so far it has fallen on deaf ears. They also say the leopards are now targeting domestic dogs. On the day we were filming there, they informed us that a leopard dragged a dog away the previous night, which was quite alarming.

A leopard caught in a snare with tranquilizer darts; officials have to wait till it is properly sedated for translocation

It remains to be seen whether the human-leopard conflict in the hill country will escalate in the future, or if a solution is anywhere in sight.

You can watch a shortened web version of our 45-minute documentary at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAL7UpetgXo

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