Yala leopards roaming outside the boundaries of the wildlife park find cattle grazing around the Yala buffer zone irresistible prey. This has made the leopard the number one enemy of the herders and it is not easy to convince a herder who just lost a calf to a leopard that the leopard shouldn't be shot or poisoned.
Such retaliatory attacks have seen a number of leopards being killed annually. Recognizing this threat, a group of wildlife enthusiasts - the late Dr. Ravi Samarasinghe, Shirom Kulatunge and Darrel Bartholomeusz started a pilot project in 2006 to provide a leopard-proof pen to herders so that they could keep their young calves safe at night when the nocturnal leopard usually attacks.
Dr. Samarasinghe, a pioneer in leopard conservation estimated that around 10 leopards are killed in the buffer zones – outside the Yala national park. After much discussion and research with herders in the areas, project Pug Marks got off the ground.
“I had lost a number of cattle, but after I got the pen, my cattle are safe,” said Wasantha Jayasinghe, a cattle herder. Wasantha said that they have seen leopards near the new pen and also signs that the predator climbed on it but the cattle were safe inside.
The pen -10ft wide, 20ft long and 5 ft tall is made with galvanised iron pipes and chain link fencing, covering the top and sides. It can also be easily dismantled and reassembled, giving the nomadic herders the freedom to move to new pastures.
Wasantha said individual herds are attacked once or twice a year, but that the leopard kills more than it can eat. On one occasion a leopard had carried away a young calf, after killing five of his cattle on an earlier occasion. Angry herders often poison the half-eaten carcass knowing that the leopard usually returns to its kill. The number of leopards that have died in this way may be more than what is recorded, as the bodies may never be found sometimes.
Seven such pens have been distributed so far. An association was formed at community level to select who should receive them depending on the area where such attacks are frequent. The raw material costing about Rs. 30,000 is given to the Herders’ Association and the cage constructed at their cost, getting the community involved in providing the solution.
The representative on site liaises with the herders. He is provided a bike and mobile phone for this purpose. If a leopard is seen in the vicinity, the cattle herders notify him so that a cage may be provided for the protection of their cattle.
Co-ordinator D.K. Susantha, often visits the cattle herders who have the pens to ensure the success of the project. He said the attitude change of not seeing the leopard as an enemy is one of the key accomplishments of project ‘Pug Marks’. He recalls how a herder was arrested with two leopard skins in his possession in 2000. The skins were not well prepared, indicating that the killing was not for skin, but that the herder was angered to see his cattle killed and with the whole system after getting punished. This herder was also given a leopard-proof pen and is now helping the authorities.
With over 60 cattle herders in the area, there is a need for more pens and the project Pug Marks people welcomes any donations.
More information about Pug Marks could be had from Darrel on 0777672503 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org