The supposed “author” of this hypothetical piece of writing is the eight-year old son of the author, who hopes, against all odds, that this scenario will never come to pass.
– Surein de S. Wijeyeratne
We were exhausted
We had searched for any sign of him for nearly two weeks before we finally saw them – elusive proof that he was still alive. And finally, there they were – undisturbed paw prints of SLPPK-WP673ST, the “Kali Villu Male”.
As we got closer to the sandy tracks, our elation disappeared. The tracks were older than we hoped for. Windswept and vanishing, they were just barely visible, but still we photographed them with an unusual mixture of emotions, delight and dread.
A Sri Lankan leopard in the wild had not been sighted for more than six years now, and what we had in front of us were the only tangible signs of the last of his kind in the wild. Our quest to photograph him one more time was proving to be futile, and the unspoken thought in our minds was too painful to articulate – perhaps he too was no more.
Nestled among some shrubs, his tracks could have been a few months old. We knew rain could not have washed them away, because by now the 23 square kilometres left of the once mighty Wilpattu National Park, had not seen rain for over 18 months. My dad used to tell me that “climate change is a hoax” was once a widely held belief. How blind and naive that generation must have been.
The entire population of Sri Lankan leopards suffered the consequences of incompetence, and corruption in successive governments and their appointees. The scattered population in the highlands were decimated by illegal and uncontrolled wire traps, and the once-famous leopards of Yala vanished almost overnight, when many blocks of the park were deprived of their protected status and released for farming during the famine in the 2040s. As the grazing herds vanished, so did the apex predator.
The so-called “Man Eaters of Horton Plains” were hunted down and killed in the late 2030s, after the park administration failed to control visitor numbers and maintain what used to be basic rules within the park. A human kill was bound to happen when trekkers were permitted to roam the park freely, and the public outcry demanding that the leopards be killed was heeded without considering the consequences. The sensitive ecosystem was pushed out of balance, and soon, a national, natural treasure was nothing more than a mass of invasive plants, with one resident family of bear monkeys.
Wilpattu was the last leopard bastion to fall to human greed and ignorance. Die-hard protectors fought hard to preserve the last remaining few square kilometres of forest, after callous politicians supported years of encroachment to secure their voter base. Last-ditch efforts to re-introduce the leopards were always destined to fail, as the food sources were insufficient. Lacking genetic diversity in smaller habitats, leopard cubs rarely survived to adulthood. And their numbers declined dramatically since 2045, and the last photograph of a leopard was taken in 2061.
Evidence of the last survivor emerged a few years later, but nobody has seen him since. Extremely shy and elusive, no amount of technology or good old-fashioned tracking has uncovered him yet. Our failure was another in a long list of attempts to sight the invaluable creature. There was some tragic poetic quality to the fact that here, near the supposed palace of Kuveni, the last Sri Lankan leopard ends his legacy in the same area where the first “Sinhala Lion” started his.
And unless concrete evidence of his existence is produced in court within the next three months, his remaining sanctuary will lose its protected status. Like the rest of what was once a mighty jungle, that I loved visiting in my childhood, this too will turn to farmland, solid waste dumping grounds, and low-cost housing complexes.
Ruined in my lifetime. In just one generation.
Conservation was low on everyone’s agenda with crisis following crisis. I was in school when the Covid-19 pandemic triggered successive political and economic catastrophes in Sri Lanka. But nobody fully anticipated the ecological disaster that would follow in slow motion over the next few decades.
Human indifference is the true enemy.
Let’s hope these last footprints are enough to change people’s minds, at least today.
– Shevin de Silva Wijeyeratne on Leopard Day, 1 August 2067
(The history of wildlife protection in Sri Lanka is almost synonymous with that of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka. At 128 years old, the WNPS is the third oldest non-governmental organisation of its kind in the world, and was responsible for the setting up of the Wilpattu and Yala National Parks in Sri Lanka, and of the formation of the Department of Wildlife Conservation [DWC])