Leopard-Livestock Conflict in Sri Lanka: Understanding the ecological and social dimensions

Leopard-Livestock Conflict in Sri Lanka: Understanding the ecological and social dimensions

Understanding the social and ecological complexities of interactions between large carnivores and livestock farming communities is critical to conserving our natural heritage.

I’ve always been drawn to interdisciplinary research trying to address pressing issues of our time. How do we balance poverty alleviation and economic development, while allowing for coexistence with species competing with humans for habitat and potential prey? That’s how I ended up studying an MSc on the human-wildlife conflict at the UBC Wildlife Coexistence Lab. Human-wildlife conflict is a global phenomenon and a leading cause of large carnivore decline. Locally in British Columbia (B.C.), human-carnivore conflict occurs with black bears, cougars and wolves -  but my research is 13,000km away in Sri Lanka, where conflict between cattle herders and the endangered Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), the terrestrial apex predator, will likely escalate unless we intervene in an appropriate way.

Camera trap photos of a male Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya)

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To understand the complexities of studying interactions between large carnivores and livestock farming communities, I believe we must address both the social and ecological aspects of the issue. One part of my work aims to identify predictor variables and their relative influence on resulting ‘conflict’ (level of livestock depredation by leopards) – specifically, native prey abundance, cattle density, husbandry techniques and distance to various habitat features (road, water, continuous and patch forest). Using tools such as remote camera traps, GIS and structured surveys, we can analyse these variables and identify potential conflict ‘hotspots’, thus informing the prioritization of limited resources available for conservation.

Wild boar (Sus scrofa cristatus) piglets are among the leopard’s common prey in this part of the country

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Spotted (or axis) deer (Axis axis ceylonensis) are also common leopard prey.

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Another part of my work aims to address the social aspect of leopard-livestock conflict, using surveys to measure attitudes towards a) leopards, and b) willingness to adopt different mitigating husbandry practices against predictor variables such as socio-demographics, cattle demographics, limitations, costs, knowledge and experience. What we may hypothesize as being an intuitive relationship (e.g. those that bear more direct costs from losing livestock will have negative attitudes towards leopards) may not be true in this local context, illustrating the need to include this aspect into more human-wildlife conflict research and let the results speak for themselves.

Social surveys being conducted with local cattle herders (right). In the background is a steel pen, that some herders in the area have been given in order to better protect their cattle from leopard depredation.

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The results can be used to inform and make recommendations to local cattle herders and dairy cooperatives and guide researchers and policy-makers on practices needed to ensure stable leopard populations. However, this project is relevant beyond the confines of Sri Lanka’s small land area. Regardless of where conflict is taking place, be it on Vancouver Island or the Ruaha landscape in Tanzania, results and lessons learned from each context can help guide future research in coexisting with carnivores in increasingly shared landscapes. There are many tools and programs being used across the globe to try and mitigate conflict, from structural changes to cattle pens to the use of guard dogs to compensation schemes financed by the communities themselves. 

Setting up camera traps requires many trials and adjustments, often using sticks to help angle the camera in the right direction.

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Whether or not these options are feasible for the local Sri Lankan context will require this baseline work to be done, and an assessment of the affected community’s level of support towards these various options. After all, if communities aren’t supportive of a program, then there is little chance for its success!

Sri Lankans are known for their friendliness and hospitality, and my experience echoed this. Many herders were very interested in this research, gave us a lot of detailed information and were keen that I come back to share the results – something I plan to do in my next field season!

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One option I am fleshing out is the possibility of collaborating between the government and the multiple hotel chains in the Yala buffer zone area, to help develop a compensation program. Tourists are drawn to the incredible Yala National Park and its leopards, and this provides an opportunity for them to contribute towards a fund that cattle herders can draw upon if and when they endure livestock losses from leopard attacks.

Interviews being conducted in the Central Hills, where cattle owners often work on tea estates as well to earn extra income. In this photo they are identifying wildlife in the area.

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Tourists already pay exorbitant prices to stay at these luxury hotels and go on safari, so if a small percentage of those costs can go into a dedicated fund, then this opens up a lot of options for cattle herders to either reinforce their pens if they get damaged (as elephants frequently do damage them), provide compensation for loss of livelihood (especially for herders with fewer livestock to depend on) and provide funds to vaccinate cattle that are otherwise dying from disease. A big thing I have opened my eyes to recently is finding ways to mitigate conflict outside the actual conflict itself – for example, if herders lose less livestock to disease, which may be easier and cheaper to prevent, then perhaps they will be more willing to lose a couple livestock to leopard attacks. Indeed, after conducting interviews, 80% of cattle herders in the Yala buffer zone region feel that leopards are the biggest issue, yet 84% of them think that leopard conservation is important, and appreciate the economic value leopards provide to the region. To me, this indicates promise for coexistence, but we must act now to prevent any negative attitudes from getting engrained in the community – a very complex issue to reverse.

A common way of keeping cattle in the Central Hills of Sri Lanka in the numerous tea estates. Cattle here aren’t being lost to leopards, however disease and miscarriages are the leading cause of their death.

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I believe this is crucial, long-term research that must be conducted across global landscapes. For coexistence to occur, we cannot prioritise humans over animals or vice versa but must study practical ways to accommodate them both. Finally, though I recognise the need and importance to publish research findings in peer-reviewed journals, I would argue that it is more important to share this information with those directly involved, who often won’t have access to such journals. To me, that means organising a presentation with the dairy farmers in the region to share results and get their input on proposed mitigations that can be trialled. I also intend on writing a short set of findings and guidelines for livestock owners to practically use, and what possible mitigation techniques are available to them, and with what advantages and disadvantages. It’s important to me to come back to the ground-level issue at hand, and I want that to be a focus as I finish writing my thesis and prepare my final results.

Cattle herders in the Yala region predominantly use this sort of ‘pen’ for their cattle, comprised of barbed wire and thorn bushes to deter leopards, but they act to mostly keep the cattle inside.

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Some advice I can give after my time in Sri Lanka: Appreciate that no two sites are the same (even within a small region, within a small country) and lean on local participants and those with expertise for help navigating these complex nuances and attitudes. It takes years, even decades, to fully understand a system and its biological communities, but large carnivores simply do not have decades to spare! 

The best part about using camera traps are the photos – elephants will always be amazing animals to look at, even though they’re not included in this research!

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Crocodiles such as this one (Crocodylus palustris) are also a cause of cattle loss, particularly during grazing times where cattle are left free to roam around near watering holes.

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Thank you to the Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Cinnamon Wild, and the many other Sri Lankans who have aided and allowed me to carry out this research. I am extremely grateful for research funding from The Rufford Foundation, National Geographic, Greenville Zoo and IdeaWild to allow me to conduct this important research.

Aisha Uduman
Aisha UdumanMSc student at The University of British ColumbiaThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Studying the ecological and social dimensions of leopard - livestock conflict in SriLanka
Blog: aishauduman.wordpress.com
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