SPOT THAT LEOPARD!
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2007). Spot That Leopard! LMD. April 2007. Page 136. Volume 13, Issue 9. ISSN 1391-135X.
Illustrating how research can be a solid bedrock for sustainable economic activity.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne reflects on the role of Ravi Samarasinha’s leopard research
In January 2007, Dr Ravi Samarasinha passed away in a tragic road accident. He was a tireless campaigner for the conservation of wildlife. Perhaps much more than people realized, because he would do so quietly, behind the scenes without much fanfare and fuss. He was also a good example of how economic activity requires an inter-disciplinary approach and how good science is often the bedrock on which economic activity is based.
Ironically, Ravi’s passion was not for the commercial aspect of wildlife. But he played a very instrumental role in enabling Sri Lanka to realise the potential of its wildlife assets and to use this as a tool for awareness and conservation. In this article I would like to reflect on how one man’s passion has helped to grow the tourism industry
I first met the ‘Koti Dosthara’ or ‘Leopard Doctor’ as he was known by the locals in Yala around the year 2000 when I was staying at a bungalow in Yala with Namal and Jackie Kamalgoda. He struck me as a soft spoken, determined, individual in good physical trim. I was impressed by the breadth of his knowledge, which he never attempted to show off. I was with Nations Trust Bank and would have never imagined that we would collaborate in the future.
A year or so later, Anjali Watson and Andrew Kettle approached Hiran Cooray for support for a proposed research project on leopards. Ravi Samarasinha was the other person on the project. I was now with Jetwing and Hiran invited me for the meeting as it fitted with a plan the board had approved for the Jetwing Research Initiative. Within a mater of minutes Hiran had informed the late Upali Weerasinghe of the Yala Safari Game Lodge that he would be hosting a trio of researchers.
Although three researchers were involved with the project, Ravi was the most instrumental in our plans to position Sri Lanka as one of the top, big game safari destinations in Asia. Ravi’s focus was always research and conservation. But his willingness to share his knowledge, and his painstaking and meticulous work was the foundation for our subsequent claims that Sri Lanka is the best place in Asia for seeing leopard. The claims were only credible because it was backed up by sound research.
Although the support for the trio of researchers only began in 2001, Ravi had been painstakingly collecting data for at least seven years. Inspired by the late Harith Perera, he had begun to maintain a register of sightings for each leopard. Each leopard was identified individually by using a combination of facial markings, a proxy for a human thumbprint. Every time Ravi sighted a leopard, he would photograph it and mark its location on a map of Block 1 of Yala. Over a period of time a picture would emerge of a leopard’s home range. In the case of cubs and sub-adults, it became possible to understand their subsequent dispersal from the mother’s home range.
Ravi was passionate about leopards. Perhaps near obsessive. The bug had taken hold when he was based at the Hambantota hospital as a young doctor. He eventually gave up a career in medicine to purse his passion for wildlife and leopards. Ravi was a story. The media lapped it up. We offered Ravi as a ‘story’ to many local and foreign television crews and almost all the time the television crews wanted to include him and the leopards on their stories. Ravi would patiently oblige whenever we asked him to be available for the media, television or print. He saw it as a way to create awareness.
Ravi’s research moved leopards from being mere animals to personalities. Each animal was identified by a combination of letters. The first series identified where it had first been seen, the second as to whether it was a male or female, the third as to whether it was a cub and finally a serial number to avoid duplication of the alphabetical sequences. Thanks to his nomenclature, a young leopard atop Kotigala was not just another animal. It became Jamburagala Road Male Cub no 1 or Jrmc1. This particular individual subsequently became the most published leopard in Asia. It appeared in national newspaper advertisements in the UK run by Travel Collection (a subsidiary of Kuoni). It appeared in a number of brochures of travel companies around the world and was published in many magazines and newspapers. Similarly, Gmc5 (Gonalabe meda para Male Cub no 5) enjoyed fame as a personality thanks to Ravi’s work.
One of Ravi’s most endearing traits was that he did not hide his work in cloak of secrecy. Anyone, I repeat anyone, who was interested would be shown his register of leopard sightings. Ravi was never a bore who would impose his passion on others. But if you were interested, he would spend as much time as you wished, explaining the social dynamics of leopards. Ravi educated a large cross section of people from park visitors, park staff to media on the ecology of leopards and the threats facing them. Although first and foremost a conservationist, he provided the hard data to help launch Sri Lanka as a top, big game safari destination. The fact that Sri Lanka was one of the best places in the world to see leopard was not an ideal boast. It was backed by hard data accumulated over many years. Ravi is tragically no more. But his legacy of research will continue to create employment and bring in much need foreign exchange for this under-developed nation.
Accountant & Banker turned wildlife populariser, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne lobbies for progress. E-mail him at email@example.com to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.