The Sri Lankan leopard, also called Ceylon Leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) is one of seven (or eight) Asian subspecies of leopards. The genetic isolation of the Sri Lankan Leopard makes it unique. In Sri Lanka, the leopard is the only representative of the genus Panthera, commonly known as “big cats”.
Its traditional Sinhala name “Kotiya” has been used for tigers in recent decades, “Diviya” is an unequivocal Sinhala term for a leopard. The Tamil name is Chirutthai.
The nomenclature “kotiya” for the subspecies was introduced by the first zoologist who described the Sri Lanka Leopard scientifically, P.E.P. Deraniyagala. His assumption of a distinct Sri Lankan subspecies was based on morphological differences between India’s and Ceylon’s leopards. Sriyani Mittapala’s recent analysis of the mitochondrial DNA confirmed this assumption.
Information about the Sri Lankan Leopard:
Sri Lankan leopards (Panthera pardus kotiya) are generally larger in size than their relatives in India, but not as big as some Persian leopards (Panthera pardus saxicolor). Some individuals of the African leopard subspecies (Panthera pardus pardus) are larger, too. The male Sri Lanka Leopard can grow to a length of 110 up to 150 cm and a weight of 55 up to 70 kg. Adult females are significantly smaller, about 32 kg. The TV documentary “Leopards of Yala”, shot in 2003, claims that the largest leopard in Yala tjose days had an estimated weight of 200 pb, about 90 kg. The largest verified Persian (Caucasian) Leopard weighed 96,5 kg.
Due to their flexibility concerning prey, Sri Lanka Leopards occur in all climate and vegetation zones of the island. The extent of occurrence (EOO) of the Sri Lanka Leopard is estimated at 55% of the country’s land coverage. Sri Lanka Leopards inhabit both dense forests and srubland savannas. Most leopards live in the dry zone, where most wildlife parks are situated. The reason for higher numbers of leopards in dry zone areas may simply be that they are less densely populated by humans and offer a higher density of prey.
Sri Lankas two largest national parks, Wilpattu and Yala, are famous for their leopard populations (0,179 individuals per square kilometres in Yala Block1). They are considered to be the areas of highest density of leopards in the entire world. Accordingly, both national parks offer better chances to spot them than any other region in Asia. However, chances to sight leopards on safaris in some parts of Africa are much better than in Sri Lanka, simply due to the natural setting and vegetation pattern: open grassland offers less hiding opportunities for these shy cats.
Depending on the density of prey a single Sri Lanka Leopard may claim a territory of about 50 square kilometers. The prey biomass available to leopards should be more than 7,000 kg/km².
Due to the lack of tigers and lions on the island, leopard are Sri Lanka’s top predator, although they could be killed by crocodiles with only one bite or could be fatally hurt by the claws of sloth bears or by snake bites.
Leopards are even more flexible and opportunistic in their choice of diet than other cats. Throughout the Old World, leopards feed on more than 100 species. Preferred prey of Sri Lanka Leopards is deer. Monkeys are a favourite diet, too, but much more difficult to hunt and catch. However, Sri Lanka Leopards also feed on other mammals, reptiles and even birds.
Spotted deer, also called Axis or Chittal, make up the majority of the diet of leopards living in the dry zone, while the larger Sambars are the main prey in the higland wilderness of Horton Plains National Park and surroundings. Sri Lanka Leopards also prey on juvenile buffalos, wild boars, and smaller mammals such as porcupines and hares. Even adult buffalos are said to be tackled by leopards. This extraordinarily large prey may be due to the Sri Lanka Leopard's unique position at the top of the food chain, without rivalling and superseding tigers or lions.
Already the normal range of prey weight is extremely high, from 112 g squirrels to 130 kg Sambars. The weight of an adult buffalo is at least 300 kg. However, the Sri Lanka Leopard’s preferred range of prey weight is about 25 to 55 kg, which is almost the size of adult Spotted Deers. Big spotted dears are usually not prey of young leopards.
A killed animal can be left for many hours and usually until nighttime, before the leopard will return for feeding. Mothers share their prey with their cubs, as long as they live together.
Like lions, leopards prefer areas of high prey vulnerability to high prey density, because they need thick vegetation such as wood or high grass for sufficient concealment. They require at least 20 cm of cover for hiding and stalking. Leopards are primarily nocturnal, they are also active during dawn and dusk and occasionally hunt during daytime hours. Leopards stalk and ambush their prey and dispatch it with a single bite to the throat.
There is still an ongoing debate, whether Sri Lankan Leopards are more social than other leopard subspecies. Normally they are solitary individuals, with the exception of mating pairs and females with their young. Both sexes occupy territories although those of males can overlap the smaller territories of several females. Sometimes male territories are overlapping with those of other males, too.
Since Sri Lanka Leopards are the top predators they don't tend to protect their prey. Feeding in undisturbed areas is very common leopard behaviour in all other Old World regions, where tigers of lions occur side by side with leopards. In contrast, Sri Lanka Leopards don’t take their prey up into a tree.
Though adult females rarely reveal themselves in daylight, male leopards seem to be more readily observed in Sri Lanka than anywhere else. This may also be due to the lack of superceding big cat species. Usually Sri Lanka leopards stay calm when sighted by humans who remain silent. A fluckering tails would indicate nervousness. That Sri Lanka Leopards are more trusty of humans, may be a nature lover’s pleasure, but it has a downside, it makes the magnificent animal more vulnerable for poachers.
Contrasting to Amur Leopards (Panthera pardus orientalis) living in the coolest climate zone inhabited by leopards (winter is the breeding season in Sibiria), there seems to be no specific mating season for Sri Lanka leopards, though their could be a peak season in dry zone habitats between April and June. Their Indian relatives (Panthera pardus fusca) have no specific breeding season. African leopards also breed year-round but with a peak in the rainy season.
When mating, male and female stay together several days. The female usually remains in heat for a week. Of course, only females without cubs are mating. The estrous cycle lasts about one and a half months. The gestation period is three or three and a half months. The litter usually consists of 2 cubs, 3 cubs at once are very rare in Sri Lanka. Three months after being born, the cubs start joining their mother in hunts. The young continue to live with their mother for one and a half or two years. The Sri Lankan Leopard reaches maturity after about two or two and a half years. Life-expectancy is between 12 and 15 years in the wilderness, up to 22 years in zoos.
Estimates on the numbers of leopards currently living in Sri Lanka vary between 500 and 900 individuals (or even between 200 and 2000). The number of at least 600 animals was estimated by the University of Peradeniya. Additionally, there are about 60 or 70 Sri Lanka Leopards in captivity in zoos around the world. Most of them belong to the European Endangered Species breeding program, which is managed by the Zoo in Cerza in Normandy, France. The area of occupancy (AOO) where reproductive adult leopards have been verified is 11,000 square kilometres (17% of Sri Lanka’s land coverage).
The leopard species (Panthera pardus) in general is listed as “near threatened”. But the Sri Lanka subspecies (P.p. kotiya), which could not be reproduced by other leopard populations, is threatened and classified as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Over the 20th century Sri Lanka’s leopard population may have declined by up to 75 percent, with highest losses under British rule. Though in recent decades Sri Lanka has been more effectively engaged in wildlife conservation than most other Asian nations, there are at least 6 different reason for a possible further decline of Sri Lanka’s leopard population. The survival of the Sri Lankan leopard is mainly threatened due to poaching for trade via India. 1. The cat’s beautiful striking pelt makes it an attractive target for poachers to sell it on the black market, where it can detch thousands of US Dollars. 2. In traditional Chinese medicine leopard bones became a surrogat for even rarer and more expensive tiger bones. 3. The destruction of their native habitat has not yet come to an end outside national parks. 4. The use of pesticides effects leopards at the upper end of the food chain. 5. The human-leopard conflict in Sri Lanka is not as serious as in neighbouring India, two incidents of fatal leopard attacks on humans occured in recent years in Sri Lanka. Every man-eater must be killed to avoid future attacks. Dogs of estates were killed more often, which sometimes results in illegal hunting of leopards near plantation areas. 6. Legal forms of wildlife tourism do not threaten leopards directly, but may be effecting the animals’ breeding behaviour and success rate. On the other hand, the popularity of leopard safaris in Sri Lanka is an additional motivation for administrations and locals to be engaged in protecting the habitats of Sri Lanka Leopards.
Read more about Team Sightseeinglanka's leopard safari expertise here...
Read more about our August leopard safari in Wilpattu National Park here...
Read more about the human-leopard conflict in Sri Lanka here...
Read more about a famous TV documentary about Sri Lankan leopards next month...
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