Leopards of Yala
Leopard Poaching

On any other day, the bulky package might have gone through. But on this day, a postal worker in Sri Lanka decided something was not quite right. Soon, his suspicions were confirmed: Inside the paper wrapping was the soft and beautiful fur of a Sri Lankan leopard — an endangered species that is protected by international law. The poachers had struck again.

Around the world, leopards are in trouble. The big spotted cats have been hunted to extinction in some areas, and their habitat — which ranges from dry desert to moist jungle — is under pressure from growing human populations. As NATURE’s Leopards of Yala shows, leopard lovers in Sri Lanka and elsewhere are taking steps to protect these powerful creatures. But while parks and preserves have helped save leopard habitat, the cat’s striking pelt continues to make it an attractive target for poachers. While not as fashionable as they once were, a leopard fur can still fetch thousands of dollars on the black market.

In Sri Lanka, researchers believe poaching has helped reduce leopard populations by up to 75 percent over the last century. While firm numbers are scarce, biologists estimate that less than 500 of the big cats remain in the island nation, which lies off India’s southern coast. Most are thought to be in three national parks, including the Yala preserve featured in Leopards of Yala.

  

Leopard furs can be worth thousands of dollars on the black market.

To get a better picture of Sri Lanka’s leopard populations, the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society is currently helping sponsor several studies. Among other findings, researchers have confirmed that the Sri Lankan leopard is a genetically-distinct suspecies (Panthera pardus kotiya) that has its own unique habits. But studying wild leopards isn’t easy, as they are expert at hiding themselves in the forest’s brush and shadows. And they are most active at night, further complicating surveys.

Researchers are also keeping an eye on poaching, which the society calls “one of biggest threats” to Sri Lanka’s leopards. Over the last few years, they have documented at least 25 leopards killed by poachers, but “it is obvious that many more leopards must be killed island-wide that go unrecorded,” society officials note. They’ve also surveyed historical records, turning up dozens of cases — including the 1996 discovery of the postal package holding the finely-prepared leopard skin. As in many other cases, police were never able to find the poacher.

In their hunt for profit, leopard poachers threaten more than just the cats, biologists note. They also threaten to destabilize entire ecosystems by removing a top predator. “The vital role that the Sri Lankan leopard plays [as] the only substantial predator in the ecosystem cannot be overstated,” say wildlife society biologists. “Removing this top cat from the arid zone environment, for example, would have dramatic consequences for a host of species lower on the food chain.” If the leopards don’t keep populations of grazing animals in check, for instance, the grazers could soon denude important forests and grasslands.

Leopard lovers hope to prevent such ecological catastrophes by learning more about leopard habits and answering key questions, such as how much territory the big cats need to survive. And, eventually, they hope that people will see that a leopard’s skin is more valuable on a living animal than it is on a wall.

  • ANNN

    PEOPLE SHOULD STOP KILLING ANIMALS !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! AND IF THERE DONT STOP THEY WILL GET IN TROUBLE BY ME HAHAHAHAHA !!!!!! :( HOW WOULD U LIKE TO BE SKINED AND KILLED JUST BECAUSE PEOLPLE WANT THE MONEY ?!?!?!?!?!

  • Jade Lepord

    Annn, I totally agree! We wouldn’t be in this mess if we people hadn’t gotton greedy! Now don’t get me wrong, I’m blaming me and everyone.

  • faith

    THAT IS THE CRULEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN!!!!!! I AM SO MAD I COULD CRY!!!HOW COULD WE DO SOMETHIMG SO CRUEL TO SUCH A BEAUTIFUL ANIMAL?!?!?!WHO EVER DOES THIS SHOULD BE SENT TO PRIZON FOR ANIMAL SLAUGHTER!!!!!

  • JULIA

    WHY DO PEOPLE POACH LEAOPARDS! IT IS SO CRUEL! LEAOPARD POACHERS MUST BE HEARTLESS! Ann i also agree with you. you make a good point leaopards are beautiful animals send them to prision for life!

  • Marie!

    I think people are heartless and cruel if they can sit there and kill an innocent animal!!! Im not mad just because people poach leopards, but because they poach anything that is valuable… I think that everyone who is poaching should be sent away, or even worse be killed. Because animals are the same as humans!

  • T.f.B.

    Why whats wrong with people. This is an act of poaching. These inicent animals are dying because yu think its funn to slaughter them. Poaching is a no no so please stop for goodness sakes. Remember God does not like ugly and poaching is ugly.

    Yours truely
    T.f.B.

  • Tre

    i agree this is cruelty to animals

  • richard del mar

    it might be of some use to show the world that leopard (and other cats) fur is very poor for human use…it doesnt
    wear well and sheds continually.

  • Sri Lankan

    Punishing the poachers doesnt completely solve the problem. People who buy the products and people in general must be made aware of these act of cruelty. I would like this article to receive more publicity.

  • Chris

    This article does not have enough info. I am doing a project and I can’t find enough about poaching.

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