|Carnivore Research in Sri Lanka|
by Shyamala Ratnayeke
: Studying Sri Lanka's Carnivores
Carnivores frequently serve as "umbrella"
species for conservation incentives. They occupy the highest
position in the food chain, and consequently require
relatively large areas to maintain viable populations.
Mammalian carnivores generally exist at relatively low
densities, and have low reproductive rates. Not
surprisingly, several of the Carnivora are among the
world’s most endangered species.
There are fourteen species of Carnivora in Sri
Lanka, and at least four of them are known or suspected to
be vulnerable, threatened, or endangered (see table below).
One species (Paradoxurus zeylonensis) is endemic to
the island. Because Sri Lanka has been isolated from the
Indian mainland for over 10,000 years, it is likely that
several of the other carnivores constitute subspecies unique
to the island. In Sri Lanka, carnivore populations are
especially vulnerable to decline because of rapid habitat
loss and fragmentation, conflicts with humans, or poaching.
The ecology, status, and distribution of carnivores in
Sri Lanka is largely unknown. Appropriate conservation and
management of these animals by the Sri Lanka Department of
Wildlife Conservation has been limited by lack of such
information. The most urgent questions are: (1) what is the
current status of mammalian carnivores in existing
habitats?, and (2) which areas and what habitat
characteristics might harbor a greater diversity of
Carnivores of Sri Lanka
||Small Indian civet
|Common palm civet
|Golden palm civet
||Indian grey mongoose
|Indian brown mongoose
|Indian ruddy mongoose
|Rusty spotted cat*
|* Known or suspected to be vulnerable, threatened,
The United States National Science Foundation (NSF)
supports ecological study of the Sri Lankan
Carnivora. NSF also supported an initial
planning/feasibility study in the summer of 2000 that helped
lay the groundwork for the current study. In 2002, we began
a 2-year study to determine the distribution, species
richness and relative abundance of carnivores in two areas
in Sri Lanka using remote-camera stations, a relatively
non-intrusive technique especially suitable for studying
species that are secretive and nocturnal.
The study will provide information on the distribution,
status, basic ecology and habitat relationships of
carnivores at two ecologically different sites in Sri
Lanka—Wasgomuwa and Yala National Parks—and
uncover some of the ecological mechanisms underlying
carnivore diversity in tropical areas. Besides providing the
first quantifiable information on some Sri Lankan
carnivores, the data will be used to develop coarse-scale
habitat distribution maps, which in turn will help identify
priority areas for carnivore conservation. This information
should serve as an initial framework to develop conservation
plans for carnivores in Sri Lanka.
: Sloth Bears
The sloth bear is Sri Lanka’s only ursid. Sloth bears may have got their name from a superficial resemblance to tree sloths of Central and South America, which are smaller, very different mammals belonging to the order Xenarthra. Sloth bears are myrmecophagous, meaning that termites form the mainstay of their diets. Their special adaptations for myrmecophagy include an extended palate, highly protrusible lips, and a missing pair of upper incisors, all contributing to a unique ability to blow away dirt and suck in termites and grubs from small holes and crevices. Apart from termites, they will eat fruit and other plant matter, and when possible will raid a beehive to eat the honey and grubs, or scavenge a kill from a leopard. Sloth bears are typically secretive and nocturnal, and for this reason one rarely sees them. Adult male sloth bears average about 100 kg and adult females 75 kg. Females tend to carry their young on their backs. The sloth bear of Sri Lanka (Melursus ursinus inornatus) is a subspecies. It is somewhat smaller and less shaggy than the average sloth bear on the Indian subcontinent.
The family Viverridae is represented by three species in Sri Lanka. All three species are very nocturnal and are sympatric (occur in the same geographic area) in some jungles of Sri Lanka, such as those in Wasgomuwa National Park. The civets also tend to coexist well with humans, the common palm civet often being a rather unwelcome resident in the roofs of houses. The golden palm civet is endemic to Sri Lanka. The color of its short woolly coat may vary from a beautiful light golden to a reddish brown. Some individuals may be chocolate brown, but distinguishable from the common palm civet by the lighter colored tail. Both species of palm civets are well-adapted for climbing trees and not quite as carnivorous as the terrestrial small Indian civet, the latter being one of the most abundant and cosmopolitan of Sri Lanka’s carnivoran species. Like the North American raccoon, civets are generalists, with a broad diet that includes fruit, arthropods, small vertebrates, snails and eggs. Despite their arboreal and fruit-eating tendencies, palm civets will actively hunt and consume small vertebrates on the ground. Civets average between 2 kg (females) and 3.5 kg (males), with palm civets being slightly heavier than the small Indian civet.
Common Palm Civet
Golden Palm Civet
Four species of mongoose are found in Sri Lanka. They are smaller than civets, and more slender. The stripe-necked mongoose (also called the badger mongoose) is larger than the other three species: 1.75 kg (females) to 3 kg (males), with distinctive orange-yellow tones in the fur of its rump and tail area. The three remaining species average 1-1.5 kg in females and 2 – 2.2 kg in males, the brown mongoose being slightly smaller and the ruddy mongoose slightly larger than the gray mongoose. The gray mongoose tends to be a lowland species, whereas the other three are very cosmopolitan in distribution, occupying a range of habitat types. Except for the stripe-necked mongoose, which is rarely seen close to human habitation, mongooses appear to thrive in areas inhabited by humans and are frequent residents in people’s back yards. Mongooses eat mostly insects, but other arthropods, vertebrates (including snakes), snails, eggs and, to a lesser extent, berries and other plant matter, are consumed. The ruddy is often seen inside putrefying carcasses, possibly feeding on insects living off the carcass. Mongooses are largely diurnal, but the brown mongoose is unusual in this respect and seems to be active mostly at night.
The four members of the carnivore family Felidae in Sri Lanka differ greatly in size: males of the small rusty spotted cat average about 1.5 kg, while large male leopards may weigh up to 77 kg. Large male jungle cats may weigh up to 8 kg, and male fishing cats up to 12 kg. Females are roughly two-thirds the size of their male counterparts, except in the jungle cat where the male is only slightly bigger.
The jungle cat has the unusual appearance of a small jackal, and is possibly the least common of the four felids. It is usually found in association with scrub/grassland habitats of the low country dry zone. The fishing cat and rusty spotted cat are cosmopolitan species found in the wet and dry zone at all elevations, but are not common. Leopards are present in most protected areas of reasonable size, and mostly in the dry zone and forested regions of the hill country.
The felids all tend to be somewhat nocturnal and crepuscular. They are accomplished predators. Leopards feed on a range of vertebrate prey, in particular spotted deer and wild pig. Rusties and jungle cats kill and eat small vertebrates like mice, lizards, frogs, hare and birds, and rusties are known to take the occasional domestic chicken when the chance arises. Fishing cats, as their name implies, feed largely on fish, fresh-water mollusks and small vertebrates and, like rusties, may occasionally take domestic livestock.
Rusty Spotted Cat
Jungle Cat (Modem)
: Golden Jackal
Picture a couple of coyote-like animals trotting across the open grasslands in the dry zone lowlands of Sri Lanka. This is Sri Lanka’s only wild canid, the golden jackal. The golden jackal has a wide distribution, occurring through central and south Asia to the Middle East, and north and eastern Africa. Perhaps this is an animal that is as tough and adaptable as the coyote. Golden jackal males (9 kg) are larger than the females (7 kg), and male-female pairs, or family groups, are frequently seen hunting together. Jackals are active during the day and at night, and it is not unusual to see them in the open at the hottest hours of the day in areas protected from hunting. Jackals are capable predators, bringing down prey as large as spotted deer when they hunt in groups. They are highly opportunistic feeders: small to medium-sized vertebrate prey are commonly taken, as well as carrion, fruit and invertebrates.
: European Otter
Typically found close to water almost all over Sri Lanka, the otter is more likely detected by its sign than by actual sightings, partly because of its nocturnal habits. The European otter has soft, dense, dark brown fur, which fades to a grayish tan on the chest and belly area to almost white under the chin. Males (5.3 kg) are typically heavier than females (3.75 kg). Otters eat a variety of fresh water vertebrates and invertebrates, and will hunt and kill rodents and birds.
About the author:
Dr. Shyamala Ratnayeke is studying sloth bears and other
carnivores in two Sri Lankan national parks.