By Chenelle Fernando
The Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS), which at the inception was established as a game protection society, has evolved throughout. With year 2019 demarcating its 125 years of conservation-related service, the society proudly presents itself today as a policy advocate and an environmental educator. Organising their monthly lectures furthers their cause, and we were fortunate to have attended their first lecture for the year.
The topic for this month’s discussion was fixed on the majestic beasts that roam the cool yet grassy forests of Horton Plains. Yala and Wilpattu National Parks are famous for leopard sightings, although reports of their presence on an elevated plain are unusual.
“It is very difficult to see a leopard in Horton Plains. My leopard experience was limited to those I had seen in national parks,” said Guest Speaker for the evening Dr. Enoka P. Kudavidanage, who was ever so present to unravel these mysteries by shedding light on the science behind it all.
Dr. Kudavidanage is a senior lecturer in ecology and conservation biology and is also a Tropical Ecosystem and Research Network (TERN) Director. TERN is a product of her global networking and long-term involvement in bridging the gap between scientists, practitioners, and the public. As we learnt, she stepped into the study of the leopards of Horton Plains through a training programme she undertook with a Singaporean university and the Department of Wildlife Conservation.
“Imagine the surprise they saw when the camera trap they set up as a trial came out with this,” added Dr. Kudavidanage, whilst exhibiting to the audience an image of a leopard they successfully captured during their training programme. The photo had sparked interest with the park warden at the time, who insisted that they carry out research on the park by setting up camera traps. “He saw that as a good way of having a scientific study inside the park, and I saw this as a good opportunity to create a link between scientists and practitioners.”
Accordingly, whilst there appears to be nine known subspecies of leopards, all of them retain the status of being endangered; the root cause being the loss of habitat causing the subsequent loss of nutrition. “If serious conservation methods are not taken, they’re going to disappear, and this is not something we want to happen.”
“When the photos came in, they were everywhere. I was quite surprised by how well a well-protected area could hide these secrets,” noted Dr. Kudavidanage. The lecture placed focus on the findings Dr. Kudavinage and her team gathered from the research carried out in the Horton Plains National Park over a period of two to three years.
A topic which floated about that evening was camera traps, which intrigued almost all members of the audience as it seemed novel in nature. Camera traps are equipped with motion and infrared sensors and they act as a viable method to capture images of wild animals in the absence of researchers.
Whilst they resort to the spot-pattern technique to capture images (that is the use of two cameras on either side), the method also has the advantage of obtaining images even if one camera fails.
Dr. Kudavidanage stressed on the local context and initiated on how it enables researchers to understand the wildlife ecology of Horton Plains, including prey distribution, animal behaviour, feeding behaviour, etc. As for the aspect a predator, prey balance is imperative, for without which populations would explode and there would be no ecosystem. The leopards of Horton Plains are suggested to have inclined towards presenting and harnessing this balance.