Anthony J. Giordano, M.Sc., Ph.D. Program Director & Coordinator, Sri Lanka Carnivore Project Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society We were still

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Anthony J. Giordano, M.Sc., Ph.D.
Program Director & Coordinator, Sri Lanka Carnivore Project
Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society

We were still very deep inside the forest when I heard the first tree branch snap. Having walked all morning and most of the afternoon, the hour was late, and our drill bit just snapped inside a tree that might as well have been an iron post. We had marked at least four new locations over nearly six kilometers for the installation of remote infrared cameras, and we’d had a very productive day already.

Now however, the elephants had surrounded us, still hidden from our sight by the dense tree cover. Another tree branch snapped, followed a minute later by the sound of an entire tree crashing to the ground not thirty meters away. That was enough for us. We picked up all of our tools, stuffed them hastily into our bags, and quickly but silently headed out of the forest the way we came. It would be at least another two hours and near sunset before we would see the forest’s edge again, and the papaya orchard through which we entered; we were looking over our shoulders the entire way.

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This day and others like it formally marked the new partnership between SLWCS, the premier wildlife conservation organization in Sri Lanka, and S.P.E.C.I.E.S., an emerging leader in the conservation of the world’s threatened and endangered carnivores. An effort more than four years in the making, this new Sri Lanka Carnivore Project is now a reality, with this pilot project well underway. When I first arrived at the SLWCS Field House with nothing more than my bags and a plan a week earlier, I was exhausted.

It was almost 2:00 am, and Sampath, Chathuranga, Chinthaka, and I had driven seven hours or so in the middle of the night. The first several hours were us just trying to escape the late day chaos of Colombo traffic. On the heels of a flight that left me out of sorts through 4:00 am the prior morning, “jet lag” didn’t even begin to describe my physiological state. But with only a month to get the pilot project on track, and to develop a feasible long-term plan for implementing the rest of it, we needed to be efficient and effective. And as we bounced down the final stretch of the broken, pothole-strewn road to the SLWCS field house at Wasgamuwa , a hard rain fell, and my head was spinning with ideas.

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The indomitable go anywhere Land Rover

Daybreak on a clear morning at the SLWCS field house is not to be missed. Sometimes the sun pushes above the horizon first thing; other times, it is 15 minutes or so before it first appears beyond the reservoir above some low-hanging clouds. The shoreline below is usually already bustling with bird traffic and the water, aflame with the sun’s reflection, invokes a cliché but magnificent portrayal of a watercolor landscape. Mornings like these as it turned out, along with a cup of Sri Lankan tea, were my daily inspiration for troubleshooting the logistical challenges that, unbeknownst to me at the time as to the details, still lied ahead of us all those first weeks. On that first day, I learned the lay of the land, from the field house, through the “elephant corridor”, to the forests in and around Wasgamuwa.

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Daybreak on a clear morning at the SLWCS field house is not to be missed

Wasgamuwa – the “ village of the bears,” as it translates – is home to a healthy population of sloth bears. Among the world’s least understood bears, and a very poorly known carnivore in general, much about the sloth bear’s ecology remains a mystery. An even greater mystery is the Sri Lanka sloth bear’s taxonomic place amongst other sloth bears, as well as its conservation status across the island nation. An IUCN “Vulnerable” species globally, we plan to learn as much as we can about the ecology and status of the sloth bear in at least five different geographical locations over the next five years. This includes the Forest Reserves surrounding Wasgamuwa National Park, and the important elephant corridor, which of course is home to several human villages.

Beyond Wasgamuwa, we plan to survey and evaluate additional sites as to the status of sloth bears, as well as at least four other carnivore species. That includes also updating the population and conservation status of the Sri Lankan leopard, an IUCN “Endangered” species and thus a high priority species for conservation in the country. Compared to other leopard subspecies in Asia and Africa, the Sri Lankan leopard has been the subject of few rigorous surveys and field investigations, just as the sloth bear has been the subject of few ecological studies relative to other bears.

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One of the deadliest of the forest ghosts, the illusive and ferocious sloth bear

South of Wasgamuwa loom the Knuckles Mountain Range, one of the, the most rugged regions in Sri Lanka. Home to both leopards and bears, as well as numerous other forest mammals, the geographical proximity of the Knuckles Forest Reserve to Wasgamuwa makes it an important part of the conservation story for the region’s forest mammals. With terrain too challenging for intensive development, we wonder if the remoteness of the Knuckles Forest has lead to healthy wildlife populations, or if it makes enforcement of hunting laws more difficult. Surprisingly, we can find no rigorous surveys of the region’s fauna to date.

Our efforts are now leading to the first detailed camera-trapping survey of the area to assess the diversity of its medium-large mammal communities, the abundance of its leopards and bears, and to determine if other smaller carnivores, including the golden palm civet, reside there. An enigmatic and often overlooked small carnivore, the taxonomic status, distribution, and ecology of the golden palm civet remains one of the largely unresolved mysteries. Possibly several different species masquerading as one, the riddle of the golden palm civet, or civets, is a high priority for us to solve.

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Part of the Knuckles Mountain Range as seen at sunset from the SLWCS Field House

Back in the elephant corridor at the vast water reservoir, we waded through the deep mud to cross to the next camera site. The mud was made deeper by the passing of an elephant family earlier that morning, so getting back clean was not an option. A small price to pay however, as the news of the day was already good. Along the muddy shore where we posted the site’s first camera, I saw the first convincing evidence to suggest that the smallest cat in the world, the rusty-spotted cat, lived in the corridor: perfectly formed tracks at the water’s edge.

Another species the true regional status of which remains elusive, this diminutive felid may be facing a variety of threats to its survival, not the least of which might be anthropogenic pressure from domestic animals. Evidence of a rusty-spotted cat in the area was especially welcome on the heels of the news we obtained a week before: that this cat’s larger, possibly even more endangered cousin, the fishing cat, was also a confirmed resident of the area.

After killing chickens of a local man, it was trapped inside the cage it broke into, and the wildlife department was called to remove it. Fishing cats are declining across their range due to the disappearance of important wetland habitats across southern Asia, and retaliation for depredating local livestock. As we assess the intensity of conflict between people and this and our other carnivore species, we hope to gain more understanding about the patterns of this conflict, as well as propose solutions to prevent conflict of this sort.

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A tiny track (pugmark) of the rusty-spotted cat found along the muddy shore of the elephant corridor reservoir

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A teaching moment: Chandima and Sampath deploying a camera monitoring station on a trail in the Forest Reserve

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A week-old scat of a Sri Lankan leopard containing hair of a Toque Macaque, a common primate endemic to Sri Lanka; not far from this sample, we established a camera station

With urban and agricultural development pressure advancing more rapidly in Sri Lanka, the need to know more about the threats faced by the island’s carnivore populations is more urgent than it ever has been. The more we learn about the ecological requirements of the Sri Lankan leopard and sloth bear, for example, the island’s largest terrestrial predators, the more effective the development of conservation strategies used to create and connect protected areas. These considerations are made even more effective when integrated with the needs of Sri Lanka’s elephant populations, which require very large areas to roam.

Similarly, smaller carnivores like fishing cats and rusty-spotted cats can also serve as flagship species for the protection of sensitive habitats, such as the country’s numerous reservoirs and coastal mangrove wetlands, or indicate a decline in ecological health. By monitoring local populations of all of these species, it is possible to set thresholds that dictate the rate and intensity of land use change that is most sustainable, and will lead to the preservation of Sri Lanka’s natural heritage for years to come.

As we move forward with our plans and broaden our activities, stay tuned for more news in the coming months about our progress!

CSP WNP Elephants

We are warned! Not 10 meters away, elephants block the path of our Land Rover