Fifty years ago, Sri Lanka’s leopards were in danger of dying out.
At one point, up to 5,000 were killed each year by men killing them as part of the Hindu religious ritual of skinning a lamb for the Thirukalayaka Vajayya Purushottam Natchithamo. In 2006, the ritual was finally banned by a judge.
But the law has little teeth.
Sri Lanka’s leopards are protected by the laws of both the country and international wildlife treaties. But authorities have no idea where the tigers and leopards are living and it’s easy to find tigers in the wild: they run through patches of the jungle and across farmland.
Authorities also have to approach them with a big stick: it’s illegal to hunt them.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) recently launched a $5 million fund with the Government of Sri Lanka to find the tigers.
“Their life here is in danger,” says Richard Clarke, head of WWF Sri Lanka. “So we want to do as much as we can to help them, to try and find the source of the tigers, to stop poaching and also to try and to act as a channel for people who might actually become guides, who might be interested in employing those people.”
A team of 20, including 10 researchers, moved from mountain village to mountain village over the past five months.
“These will be our only data,” says Carol Ann Gore, a wildlife scientist working on the project. “But so far we have not found any tigers.”