Leopards in trouble: Are they extinct, or will they ever be?

Written by by Staff Writer, CNN Staff Writer

Since it was first viewed back in 1999 , the jungles of Rajeela have become UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. It is home to the tiger, leopard, rhinoceros, jaguar, forest elephant and myriad other species, but it hasn’t been without its fair share of troubles.

Rajaela, a large area located south of Colombo in Sri Lanka, was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999 after conservationist Anura Pokhara discovered the WWF-listed mammal living here.

It was, however, once one of the main strongholds for leopards in Sri Lanka. He estimated the jungle to contain 10 times as many of the creatures as the national parks. The numbers were “an astonishing figure when looking at conservation in Sri Lanka,” he wrote in his 1995 book “Leopards in Sri Lanka.”

Deforestation and use of toxic chemicals in agriculture has led to the once-mysterious cat now being seen in fewer than five percent of the original habitat. The rapid disappearance of the leopard population is worrying conservationists around the world.

In 2015, WWF announced that only 620 leopards had been seen in Sri Lanka since 1950, a rate of extinction almost unheard of. This decrease is affecting leopards across the globe, leading to an overall loss of 9,000 leopards across Sri Lanka’s National Parks.

But many experts believe that the ultimate fate of the leopard is not as bleak as the numbers of the indigenous animals suggest.

“It’s not a feral animal anymore,” said Chanda Karunaratne, director of the Elephant Nature Trust. “The traditional kind of poaching, the amount of illegal activities that are happening in the landscape, are not the lions or leopards of yesterday.”

Still, many of these issues could continue to plague Rajaela.

“(M)arine vegetation has been lost, so we’re not able to replace it with virgin forest, something that we’ve noticed in situations in other countries,” said Karunaratne. “This area had an ecosystem with leopards, with tuskers and of course people had livestock (and) larger animals, such as elephants.”

It’s not only the loss of local agricultural land that threatens the natural world.

“There’s a lot of impacts from the industry, from agriculture, from forest burning,” said Karunaratne. “The movement of people is changing the natural balance of the landscape,” she said.

Despite the hardships they face, many of the leopards have remained tough and strong through the years.

“The leopards in Rajaela are doing quite well and we know they’re surviving here,” said Karunaratne. “In the National Parks, there’s still a thriving leopard population, and that’s very encouraging.”

With the amount of land they are surrounded by, its largely in their own hands to save them from certain extinction. “If we were to lose them, then we wouldn’t see that as a species anymore, but they are still here,” said Karunaratne.

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