The Wasgamuwa Cattle Killer

 

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“The urgency and concern was that on April 18th a leopard had attacked unprovoked and in broad daylight two construction workers in the Kumana National Park. It killed one laborer and injured the other very seriously.”

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Spotted Ghosts that come in the night…

 

Ravi Corea/SLWCS

May 6th – We had just sat down to have breakfast when the EleBus returned after dropping the village kids at their respective schools. The EleBus crew Asitha and Gamini looked excited as they came dashing towards the Mess Tent. Interrupting each other they managed to somehow impart that the children while waiting for the EleBus at 6 am had observed a leopard walking along the road. They had also heard that a calf had been taken from a cattle stockade belonging to a farmer in the nearby village.

Quickly clambering into Glorious the Land Rover we drove the 3 kilometers to the village that was located at the north end of the Tree Hut Elephant Corridor deep in the forest reserve and met with the farmer whose calf the leopard had taken. Gunewardena is a middle-aged farmer who has a small herd of native cattle. Apparently within the last one and a half months he had lost 5 calves to a leopard!

The present attack had happened two nights ago. Gathered inside the cattle stockade which was just a large open glade with tall teak trees giving shade we looked around to set up several remote cameras to capture the stock raider. Going by the frequency of its attacks it was bound to make another kill again very soon.

 

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The leopard had taken five calves from this location

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Talking to farmer Gunewardena

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Gunewardena showing where five of his calves were taken within a 6 weeks period by a leopard

 

The farmer Gunewardena was a compassionate man, considering he had lost five calves he did not seek to avenge his loss by killing the leopard. The usual response of other farmers would be to lace the carcass with poison or set trap guns to get rid of the killer. Appreciating Gunwardena’s compassion towards the leopard we committed to compensate his loss by giving him a calf. It was also an added incentive for him to continue to be compassionate if further attacks occurred. But bringing a calf turned out to be a much harder task than I had anticipated.

We scouted around the cattle stockade for potential camera stations and commenced to install several remote cameras. While we were installing the cameras Chandima said he was getting the smell of a rotting carcass, which we all began to notice.

 

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Selecting potential camera locations

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Setting up cameras

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Amidst warnings that the leopard could be guarding the kill and would not like anybody approaching it, Chandima traced the kill by its smell and the buzzing of flies. The leopard had dragged the calf across a nearby deep and narrow dry sandy stream bed a distance of 60 meters to high ground where it had partially consumed it. Only the stomach and intestines were eaten while the rest of the calf including its’ head, body and limbs were left intact. Apparently the leopard had not visited the carcass since it had killed it because the stomach cavity was infested with maggots and flies buzzed in their thousands, which had helped to find the carcass.

Quickly abandoning the idea of setting up cameras in and around the stockade we decided to set a remote camera next to the carcass. That evening we arrived around 6 pm and set up one remote camera on the only suitable tree available and directly in line with the carcass. The stench was unbearable but doing our best to ignore it we went about setting up the camera.

 

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searching for the kill

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At the kill

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The maggot infested carcass of the partially eaten calf,

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Cleaning around the carcass to set up a remote camera

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Sampath covering his nose while helping to install the camera

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Chandima setting the camera mode

 

May 7th – In the morning the EleBus crew was asked to collect the camera when they went to pick up the kids.

In the meantime I went to meet Mahathun, a farmer who had a large herd of cattle and goats. Over the years we had given him cows and goats to increase and improve his herds. Mahathun very graciously provided a young heifer to give Gunewardena.

Mahatun’s cattle range freely grazing over a vast area and are enclosed in a fenced stockade only at dusk. When the time came to separate the heifer from the rest of the herd, that’s when things started to go south. Having never been tethered in its life before—the moment it was lassoed the heifer ran amok. Deciding it would be less stressful for the heifer and our vehicle won’t get destroyed as well we decided to walk it with the rest of the herd part of the way and then continue on to Gunewardena’s stockade. Hopefully by then the heifer would be somewhat used to the rope around its neck. It turned out to be the worst decision we could’ve made.

Soon as we parted from the herd and started our walk to the village the heifer took off bucking and cavorting in various directions like a bull in a rodeo dragging Mahatun’s teenage son Sanju along with it. In whatever direction it gamboled we too pranced and ran along behind to keep up with it.

The heifer went in every direction: over hill and dale and everything in between other than where we wanted it go. It would rest for a split second which allowed Sanju to get it heading in the right direction and then it would go again dragging Sanju as if he were water skiing in the bush. It did this repeatedly and in this manner we would’ve covered more than 7 kilometers and come no where near Gunewardena’s village. To say we were exhausted by then would be an understatement and on top of that we were totally fed up with the heifer’s intractability. I would’ve gladly exchanged the heifer for an ass.

When we came to a stream the heifer had a long and refreshing drink while we looked on in envy. Not expecting this to turn into a such a long and tiring fiasco we had not even brought a water canteen with us.

After having drunk from the stream now with renewed vigor the heifer led us again on a merry dance and then just as suddenly decided it was not going anywhere! It laid down on the ground and to our consternation simply refused to move. Our frantic efforts were of no avail it would not move or budge an inch. Like in the song “My Grandfather’s Clock” it laid down never to get up again. I always thought mules, asses, and camels were stubborn but this heifer put them all to shame.

Finally as a last resort we called Sampath to bring the Land Rover.

 

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The cattle in the stockade

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Selecting a heifer

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Sanju attempting to lasso a heifer

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The entire herd heading out to graze. The Knuckles Mountain Range is in the far horizon.

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What should’ve have been a pleasant walk…

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The heifer went everywhere…

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…other than where we wanted it to go!

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It splashed into the stream

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…and had a long and refreshing drink.

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Probably has some mule ancestry in its bloodline!? It laid down never to get up again

 

This was supposed to be a pleasant walk through forests, glade and grasslands with a chance of seeing some wild elephants. The heifer with its mulish behavior had turned this entire effort into a total disaster.

Now with an inert heifer laying on the ground the obvious solution was to move it by vehicle. Once the decision was made we had no choice other than to tie its four feet so it would not injure itself or us when we put in the vehicle. So there we were with a hog tied heifer at our feet waiting for the Land Rover. Fortunately we were in a desolate location where there were no passersby. Otherwise they would’ve got the impression that was quite contrary to what we were truly attempting to do.

Once Sampath arrived in the Land Rover with the help of a pole we lifted the heifer physically and put her into it and brought her to farmer Gunewardena’s stockade. We were so very glad and relieved to be rid of the obstinate animal at last, that I felt like yelling out loud “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

The next farmer who loses stock to a leopard while we would be happy to provide a replacement will have to collect and bring it himself, unless they provide me with a horse.

 

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All loaded into Glorious

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What a relief! At Gunewardena’s stockade

 

The EleBus crew when they went to collect the camera had found the carcass had been dragged 3.5 meters from where it was and the leopard had eaten some of it. There were prints around the kill. Unfortunately the camera had not captured the leopard. The leopard had come from an angle that the camera could not detect and had dragged the kill away.

Disappointed but determined by this evidence that the leopard was visiting the kill we set the camera again. But the conditions were not great because we had to set the camera very close to the kill and we did not want to move or disturb the kill fearing it would put off the leopard. The stench had got even worse – biting down hard on the gag reflexes we went about setting the camera.

 

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The leopard had dragged the kill undetected and consumed most of it

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Leopards prints in the vicinity of the kill

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May 8th – With high anticipation the camera was checked and again it was very disappointing. There were several photos of the leopard but as we had feared due to the proximity of the camera to the kill the photos were “overlit” by the flash. The leopard had visited the kill at: 9.50 pm.

Now we were really determined since we had hard evidence of the leopard and there was still enough left of the carcass and a good chance it would visit it again. This time we set up two cameras next to what was left of the kill to make absolutely certain that we’ll get photos of the leopard. Now the unbearable stench was like a familiar friend or our olfactory nerve had just given up and gone into shut down mode.

 

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The camera was too close.

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The leopard carrying the carcass away

 

May 9th – As soon as the EleBus crew brought the cameras Chandima loaded the memory cards into the computer. We waited with bated breath for the images to load. There were several ghost shots and a few photos of a grey mongoose opportunistically nosing around in the vicinity of the kill little after 6 pm. And then several amazingly clear photos of the leopard. It was fantastic that our efforts had paid off and we now had some really great photos of the Wasgamuwa Cattle Killer. The leopard had visited the kill at 7.42 pm. It seems it was active around 7 pm taking into account that it needed to travel from wherever it was resting to the kill site. Obviously it was not camera shy.

It was a young female leopard and she seemed to be in really good physical condition. We were really curious why she had turned to killing calves. Poaching could be the one and only reason. Poaching in Wasgamuwa is epidemic. All our efforts to bring this matter to the attention of the authorities including providing photos of poachers have not resulted in any follow up action.

 

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A grey mongoose looking for easy pickings.

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The leopard approaching what is left of the kill

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Eating

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That evening we decided to set three cameras with one on video mode just in case the leopardess visited what was left of the kill again.

On the way from the Wasgamuwa National Park we dropped off the volunteers in the Field House and headed directly to set up the remote cameras. It was dark and the time was 7.15 pm. We knew from last night’s photos that the leopard became active and visited the kill around this time. Parking the Land Rover, we gathered the cameras and tools and walked quickly through the scrub following the dry stream bed to where the kill was.

 

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The leopard had moved the kill again 3.5 meters but this time to a location that offered ideal conditions to mount three cameras. There was really not much left of the kill – just its’ fore legs.

It was pitch dark and we worked quickly using our flashlights to set up the cameras knowing that the leopard will visit the kill anytime now. The urgency and concern was that on April 18th a leopard had attacked two construction workers in the Kumana National Park located in the very southeast corner of the island. The unprovoked attack had happened around 4 pm. The leopard had killed one laborer and injured the other very seriously.

And here we were messing around a leopard’s kill in the dark! The Kumana leopard had attacked the construction workers in broad daylight without provocation. Just imagine what this leopard would do to us if it found us at its kill in the dark when all the odds were in its favor?

Quickly setting up the cameras we left the area as fast as we could. With very audible sighs of relief we got into the Land Rover and left quickly. The time was 7.40 pm and it had become totally dark. We knew from last night’s photos that the leopard had visited the kill around 7.42 pm. We had managed to leave with just two minutes to spare.

 

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Asitha positioning what is left of the kill for the cameras

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Chandima setting the camera mode…

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…while some of us kept watch in case the leopard showed up

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Part of the camera trapping crew

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Getting out before the leopard shows up

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Safely back in Glorious

 

From our remote camera data we know that there are 8 leopards in a 3.5 square kilometer area in these forests. Indiscriminate poaching wipes out the prey base of apex predators, and the presence of poachers in the forests drives these shy predators to find refuge in forest patches adjacent to human habitations, since these are the areas where poachers are least active. As they get pressed into these marginal areas these predators are brought into close contact with village livestock. Then eventually the inevitable happens—they kill their first livestock and as they learn how easy it is they become habitual raiders.

The SLWCS has reached out to several of the known poachers in the area and have managed to convince them to either give up or work with or for the Society. Unfortunately due to the recent events that occurred on Easter Sunday many of these initiatives of the Society will come to an end as the SLWCS finds itself striving to survive in these times of uncertainty.

 

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The Wasgamuwa Cattle Killer

 

Big, rumbling thanks to our Corporate Partners for their kind support and to everyone who has donated and supported our wildlife conservation efforts!
———-__

 

 

Acknowledgments:

elephantea for the SLWCS staff shirts

We would like to thank the following organizations and individuals for donating the remote cameras:

SPECIES Foundation, California, USA
Loi Nguyen, California, USA
Camille Hardman, Mighty Fine Entertainment, California, USA
Boly Media Communications (Shenzhen) Co. Ltd

The Quote: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” adapted from Martin Luther King, Jr.

Photo Credits:

Sri Lanka Carnivore Project/SLWCS & S.P.E.C.I.E.S. Foundation
Chandima Fernando/SLWCS
Ravi Corea/SLWCS

 

 

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