Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), called Kotiya in Sinhala and Puli in Tamil languages, is a subspecies native to Sri Lanka. Classified as Endangered by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), the population is declining due to numerous threats including poaching for trade and human-leopard conflicts.
One among the nine known subspecies it has tawny or rusty yellow coat stamped with dark spots and rosettes. Females averaged a weight of 29 kg, whereas males weigh about 56 kg on an average, with the largest being 77 kg.
Distribution and habitat
They are Sri Lanka’s top predator. There was not much known about the subspecies in the past, but ongoing studies in the framework of The Leopard Project, run by The Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust, indicate that they are still spread out throughout the island both inside and outside the protected areas. These animals have been observed in a variety of habitats including dry evergreen monsoon forest, arid scrub jungle, low and upper highland forest, rainforest, and wet zone intermediate forests.
A recent study has shown that Yala National Park has one of the highest recorded densities of leopards in the world, although the animal is still considered to be endangered. The Wilpattu National Park is also a good place to see leopards. The good thing is that these cats tend to be more readily observed in parts of Sri Lanka than in other countries where they share their habitat with more dominant competitors, such as lions or hyenas.
Ecology and behavior
Like most cats, Sri Lanka leopard is also pragmatic in its choice of diet which consists of small mammals, reptiles, birds as well as larger animals. Spotted or Axis deer makes up the majority of its diet in the dry zone. The animal also preys on barking deer, sambar, monkeys and wild boars. The cat has been known to take almost fully grown buffalos too.
This species also hunts like other leopards, silently stalking the prey until it is within striking range where it unleashes a burst of speed to quickly pursue and pounce on its victim. The prey is usually killed with a single bite to the throat.
Sri Lankan leopards are not any more social than other subspecies. They are solitary hunters, with the exception of females with young. Both sexes exist in overlapping territories with the ranges of males overlapping the smaller ranges of several females, as well as overlapping the ranges of neighboring males. They usually prefer hunting at night, but are also active during dawn and dusk, and daytime hours. Unlike other subspecies, they rarely take their kills into trees. Perhaps the reason is lack of competition and the relative abundance of prey. Since they are the apex predators they don’t need to protect their prey.
There appears to be no birth season or peak, with births scattered across months. A litter usually consists of 2 cubs.
Like other subspecies survival of Sri Lankan leopard is also threatened because of habitat loss, poaching and persecution. Despite all these threats, it is highly adaptable and is able to live in close proximity to human settlements. Years of civil unrest in Sri Lanka have hampered conservation efforts, especially in the Wilpattu national park and eastern regions contested by government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Due to a nomenclature mishap in the late 1980s, “kotiy?” has now become the colloquial Sinhala term for tiger, and “diviy?” is used for leopard. In late 80s and early 90s, the word ‘kotiya‘ was being frequently incorrectly translated into English as “tiger” in Sri Lankan media due to incorrect information that was received from the then head of the Wildlife Department in Sri Lanka. He had allegedly said that “there are no kotiyas (tigers) in Sri Lanka but diviy?s”, misinterpreting Panthera pardus kotiya as “diviy?” (Sinhala term used for small wild cats). Although it is correct that there are no tigers in Sri Lanka, the formal Sinhala word for tiger is “viyagraya” and not “kotiy?“. Panthera pardus kotiya (Sri Lankan leopard) is the kotiy? proper, and there is no such creature as Panthera pardus diviya. Unfortunately Sri Lankans started to use “kotiy?” to mean “tiger“, so “diviy?” was chosen for “leopard”.
The term “diviy?” has been used for centuries in Sri Lanka to refer to smaller wild species of the cat family such as “Handun Diviy?” or “Kola Diviy?” (both names are used interchangeably for the Fishing Cat and the Rusty-spotted cat).
A further complicating factor is that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers) are colloquially known to the Sinhala-speaking community as ‘Koti‘, the plural form of ‘Kotiy?‘.