Leopards are one of Sri Lanka’s most charismatic and famous creatures. Despite this iconic status, they are endangered. Their fame and charisma do, however, spark interest in conservation from both state and non-state actors not just to conserve and protect leopards themselves, but other animals as well. Tapping into this interest, it is possible to complement the traditional state-led conservation paradigm with a potentially more flexible and proactive, multi-stakeholder, partnership-driven conservation model.
One of the many habitats that leopards inhabit is the largely unprotected tea estate landscape of the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka. While leopards in protected areas like our national parks are fairly well protected, the same cannot be said for unprotected areas, especially areas where leopards and humans have the potential to interact.
A collaborative partnership of a variety of actors, the Peak Ridge Forest Corridor Collaboration, is coming together to identify key wilderness and mixed landscape areas of importance to leopard conservation in this unprotected Central Highlands area, particularly the Peak Ridge Forest Corridor; an undulating piece of land that runs for approximately 18 km between Kew Estate in the southeast along to the Ballapennumgala Forest Reserve in the northwest, between the Castlereagh and Maussakelle Reservoirs, and connecting two prongs of the Peak Wilderness Forest Reserve.
A mixed landscape of tea, remnant forest, and other plantations, this key upland ridge acts as a vital watershed for the leopards and other wildlife.
The Peak Ridge Forest Corridor Collaboration initiative sees tea companies, other supporting partners, and the Wilderness & Wildlife Conservation Trust (WWCT) coming together in a landmark partnership covering 13 tea estates, between leading plantation management companies – Madulsima Plantations, Horana Plantations, Bogawantalawa Plantations, Maskeliya Plantations, Dilmah Tea Estates, and Kelani-Breamar Estates (Pvt.) Ltd. – the WWCT, and Resplendent Ceylon Tea Trails, supported by Dilmah Conservation, Whitley Fund for Nature, and Alliance Finance PLC.
The Peak Ridge Forest Corridor is home to approximately eight to 12 resident leopards which are part of a larger area population of approximately 30 leopards, a remarkable population for a compromised unprotected area, and an important part of Sri Lanka’s islandwide population which itself numbers approximately 1,000 mature leopards.
With this ridge now seeing collaborative protection along its entirety, these leopards can continue to be afforded refuge. Planting of forest plant species to improve habitat along select areas of this ridge has now begun and the hope is that more patches will be reforested under this partnership to improve the ecological integrity of this ridge. Monitoring of leopards along with this and adjacent ridges is ongoing.
Increasing such conservation partnership initiatives across the tea estate landscape would tremendously improve the habitat of this Highlands area, conserve the key watershed services provided by these ridge forests, and provide vital refuge to the wildlife that still lives here, ensuring long-term biodiversity conservation, climate resilience, and human-wildlife coexistence into the future.
Despite the heavy human presence in the Peak Ridge Forest Corridor, leopards have established a fairly robust population for themselves. Research conducted by the WWCT has shown a population of approximately 25 adult leopards and 12 cubs since 2016 using the Peak Ridge Corridor. A spatially explicit density analysis conducted by the WWCT has shown that the Peak Ridge Corridor has an adult leopard population density that is roughly half of the leopard population found in Block I of Yala National Park, which is quite remarkable given the fact that this is an unprotected, human-dominated landscape.
Long-term conservation is not practical without the support and co-operation of the people that actually share space with wildlife. As such, numerous education and awareness projects in and around the tea estates that comprise the Peak Ridge area are conducted by all partners to this initiative. Schoolchildren are particularly receptive to the idea that the wildlife with which they share the land is of value and that preserving this wildlife is of great importance.
Habitat restoration via forest replanting by partner estates will also improve these narrow corridors. This component is an important part of the long-term strategy to improve climate resilience in this plantation sector and to ensure sufficient habitat for wildlife.
Sri Lanka’s wildlife is one of our most valuable resources and is a huge part of how we position ourselves to the world as a travel destination. However, as a country, we don’t always treat this resource responsibly. This initiative shows that private entities can collaborate and work for the greater good of the planet and those who inhabit it, human and otherwise.