Leopards in Sri Lanka: Arabian Cats in the Jungle

Lalakshmi Piracha isn’t giving up. More than a century after Richard Burton brought a wife to England’s Sherwood Forest, Piracha is trying to save leopards in Sri Lanka. Her company, Dilkeas (or “lions for life” in Sinhalese), has been hired by the Sri Lankan government to reintegrate the country’s tigers into the wildlife, laying the groundwork for a government program to save Sri Lanka’s 40,000 leopards, whose numbers have dropped by 40 percent in the past decade. Sri Lanka’s “leopard king” showed me around the country’s largest leopard sanctuary, the patch of forest in the middle of the Kandy national park, where villagers still name leopards after their famous visitors.

An extra-large paintbrush to mark a field tree for new expansion.

Bears nosing in to steal a calf’s milk.

Female leopards baby-sitting.

There are leopards in every corner of the island, and big cats roam Sri Lanka’s highlands and the tsunami-ravaged northeast—as well as in wetlands, the coastline, jungles, grasslands, and even the cities. And though there are only a few dozen reported cases of human-wildlife conflict every year, Piracha worries that tiger hunting, and deforestation, will send wild cats toward extinction. A century ago, when British explorers first saw Sri Lanka’s tigers, they estimated there were as many as 50 in the island’s far north. But now the tiger remains a powerful symbol of the island’s colonial history. Its 400-plus-pound wildcat meat is the most expensive in Sri Lanka, and its rare antelope, the common leopard—the species most endangered today—is still traded mostly among eager tourists. The tiger has been brought into the national consciousness through film and by people like Piracha.

Ancient bay cat dashes in for a drink.

Down a steep trail, the leopard found a brightly painted meadow, the furrowed plant’s stems a cover for baby leopards. I took a deep breath—there’s nothing like a wild cat hunting a calf.

This article first appeared in November 2000. The Washington Post has reprinted it at no charge.

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