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In Sri Lanka, humans mistakenly attempt to ‘rescue’ leopard cubs

  • Leopard mothers often hide their cubs when they are going out hunting or in the process of relocation, and in Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands, workers on tea estates often pick up these cubs, assuming they are either abandoned or lost.
  • When baby leopards are fetched by humans, many people gather to watch what’s unfolding, forcing the leopard mom to retreat rather than approach the cub, making reunion efforts extra difficult for wildlife rangers.
  • Other wild cats, specially fishing cats and rusty-spotted cats living close to human settlements are also picked up, sometimes by well-meaning people who assume these cubs, too, are lost or abandoned.
  • As leopards partly share the same tea estate as humans, their territories often cross into fragmented forests where they take refuge in the absence of quality wildernesses, roaming closer to humans and increasing encounters which can escalate into conflicts.

From time to time, there are media flashes about leopard cubs being rescued and some reports carry moving video footage of how well-meaning village folk, especially estate workers in the central hills, hand these cubs over to wildlife authorities. Unlike the majestic and fiery demeanor of leopard moms and dads, leopard cubs are cuddlesome balls of fur, much like kittens at home. When these adorable creatures are found alone in some nook, people don’t have the heart to just leave them there. Convinced the cubs are lost in the wild, they pick them up, fearing the helpless cubs will be in harm’s way if not rescued.

This leopard cub found inside a toilet in a tea estate was reunited with his mom after three days. Image courtesy of Srinath Dissanayake.

Lost or abandoned

Villagers do this wholeheartedly, full of good intentions, but picking up a little leopard cub should not be done without a proper assessment of their surroundings and without understanding the possible reasons as to why the cub is there. Often, the mom leaves her cubs in small hideouts to go on brief hunting trips, or the mom could be in the process of relocating her cubs to a safer location, said Anjali Watson of the Wilderness & Wildlife Conservation Trust (WWCT), an expert on the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya).

“The cubs’ best chance of survival lies with the mother’s guidance. The best option for their survival is to leave them where they are found,” Watson told Mongabay.

In recent weeks, three separate incidents of villagers picking leopard cubs were reported in the media. All three incidents were reported from the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka where leopards share the island’s tea-growing landscape.

“It is a daunting task to raise a leopard cub that is just a few weeks old. Just like human babies, these cubs also depend on the mother’s care during the initial stage of their lives,” says Pinidiya Akalanka, a veterinary surgeon with the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) who oversees the Central Highlands wildlife region.

A collage of news reports on different “leopard cub rescue” incidents show how people often mistake solitary leopard cubs as needing assistance. Image courtesy of Malaka Rodrigo.

Training to survive in the wild

Even if the cub survives, it would be very difficult to rehabilitate a leopard to such an extent that it becomes capable of surviving in the wild. The leopard is a hunter and needs to hone its hunting skills, strategically taught by its mom offering it live kills. “In a country like Sri Lanka, purposely providing live animals to get leopards trained in this specific skill can even cause a backlash, as it goes against Buddhist cultural practices. This means there could be hurdles other than technical issues,” Akalanka told Mongabay.

Male leopards are territorial and can fight with other contenders to defend themselves. In the wild, these fighting skills are developed through playing with siblings and their mother, but in captivity, it is nearly impossible to teach the skill. And despite all of this, leopards raised in captivity tend to return to human settlements as they lose fear, hence the cubs that cannot be reunited with the mother leopard are most likely to remain in captivity for a lifetime. This is why DWC always tries to reunite the cubs with their mother as the first step, Akalanka said.

Not only leopards but fishing cat cubs like this one, too, are mistakenly “rescued” when considered lost or abandoned. Image courtesy of the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Making reunions possible

However, it is often a very time-consuming operation, trying to reunite the cubs with their mother. On two recent occasions, the DWC teams successfully reunited cubs with their mother, but another attempt failed.

In February, a cub was found in an estate worker’s toilet in the early morning and as the news spread, a crowd quickly gathered around. The DWC team took the cub away from the site, as the animal appeared to be weak, and then tried to reunite it with the mother while keeping it in a cage near the location where it was found. The team had three sleepless nights in the chilling hill country weather and eventually succeeded.

More recently, in May, another leopard cub was fetched by a group of workers at another tea estate thinking it had been abandoned. The DWC team’s volunteers tried to reunite the cub with the mother, but the attempt was unsuccessful. According to DWC, the mother leopard visited the place where the cub was kept but hadn’t fetched it.

“Some species do reject their young if people have interfered with them, but there can be other reasons for the re-union attempts to fail,” said Watson. In one failed attempt, the mother seemed to be a young female and the cub could have been its first litter, so it could have been inexperienced at fetching the cub from the cage. The cub was weak and there was heavy rain with thunder that could also have impacted the reunion attempts, Watson told Mongabay.

In some instances, the mother leopard purposely abandons cubs if the cubs are too weak or not healthy to survive in the wild. A cub could look perfectly fine but could have deformities only the mother can detect early in life, and a reunion may not be possible in such situations, Akalanka said.

This young leopard was trapped inside an estate community home. Image courtesy of the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Recurring encounters

Recurring encounters between humans and leopard cubs indicate that big cats often inhabit areas close to human habitats. The land use pattern in the Central Highlands has shifted significantly, and leopards have lost much of their original habitat, but there can be other reasons for these encounters, said Andrew Kittle, a conservation biologist and lead scientist at the Wilderness & Wildlife Conservation Trust (WWCT).

Often, the unproductive tea bushes on plantations tend to overgrow and combine with other shrubs and bushes in the area, becoming habitats for leopard prey such as the black-naped hare (Lepus nigricollis) and barking deer (Muntiacus genus). Leopards are an adaptable species and can live in most habitats given a reasonable prey base. Leopards may also find these to be a safer refuge, even though located near human settlements, Kittle said.

The upper ridgelines of the island’s Central Highlands are also active as movement corridors and refuge for leopards in this heavily fragmented landscape, but even the lower areas – which typically have more tea and more human settlements — are sometimes particularly used by the males to move between forest patches and ridgelines.

“There appears to be some evidence that females are increasingly using these lower areas to move through where tea has been released, which may be why cubs are more frequently found in these areas, Kittle told Mongabay.

Success story: A leopard cub is reunited with its mother after a three-day rescue effort. The left image shows the mother leopard trying to free its cub from its enclosure and the right image shows the happy leopard mom with her cub. Images courtesy of the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Awareness is key

Educating the community is key to addressing the issues relating to leopard conservation in the area, said Spencer Manuelpillai,  co-chair of the wildcat subcommittee of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS). Several organizations, including WWCT and volunteers, conduct awareness sessions on leopards, especially for estate workers. WNPS has initiated a program to gather information on leopard distribution outside of protected areas and to understand the nature of human-leopard interactions.

“It is not just the leopard cubs, but fishing cat cubs, too, are regularly reported from many places in Sri Lanka, according to the DWC. In one instance, a pair of fishing cat cubs were collected by estate workers from a tree cavity, which was undoubtedly a hideout their mother had carefully selected.

The mother leopard arrives, a daring beast willing to carry her cub home. Image courtesy of the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Frequent encounters with cubs are also an indication that leopards share the landscape with humans in this region, and it is the tip of an iceberg: a brewing leopard-human conflict. So far in 2023 alone, at least three incidents of leopard attacks have been reported. None of these attacks were intentional but occurred in the leopard’s attempt to escape when villagers cornered it. In another instance, it was an unexpected encounter in which the panicking leopard tried to escape the situation and caused injury to those around it.

On several occasions, leopards have been reported trapped inside houses as well. Watson and Kittle said they believed the high predation of dogs could be due to leopards raising their cubs near the communities. “Usually, when a community notices that dogs are being taken, it only lasts for a couple of months – probably the period the cubs are in need of mobile prey as they start solid food, but too small to accompany the mother around,” according to Watson and Kittle. This theory is still anecdotal, so more data are needed to further identify patterns, they said.


Banner image of a leopard cub, just a few weeks old, leisurely lying on a grassy lawn in Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands, courtesy of Romesh Abeywickrama.

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