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Saturday January 28th, 2023

Spot Spotting: Taking the lead on Sri Lankan leopard learning

Early morning, late September, dense high-tree jungle, Willpattu National Park. We’re here in search of the Sri Lankan leopard, but we’re not especially concerned with seeing any. This search is deeper, probing demographics, movements, habits, habitat, prey and prospects, not to mention sex life, social life, communication and adaptation.

With me in the jeep are three big cat scientists, husband and wife senior scientists Andrew Kittle and Anjali Watson, joined by grad student Gyanada Acharya, operating under the Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s ‘Leopard Project,’ along with trusty tracker, Bimal and driver Hemantha. Andrew and Anjali are retrieving camera traps set three weeks earlier along dirt tracks, extracting their accumulated data for later download and analysis. A little later, we move the cameras to spots (sorry) further into the jungle. Rains will be coming soon after the long dry season so Anjali and Andrew are anxious to complete their surveys before dirt roads go gummy.

Using GPS, the scientists maintain a shifting grid in camera placements, facilitating meaningful data analysis. Each trap consists of two cameras aimed across the track, one on each side. When a leopard or any other animal trips invisible beams they emit, the cameras fire so that the subject is captured from two sides in the same instant. Anjali and Andrew can identify individual leopards from the shapes and patterns of their spots. With thousands of photos and recorded times they can determine which animals and how many frequent a given location and they can track ranges of particular cats.

Leopards have been called the perfect predator: expert in ambush, stealthy and patient, then quick in attack and deadly in bite. Having outlasted rival cousins lions and tigers that roamed here prehistorically, she is modern Sri Lanka’s sole land-based apex hunter. Because Lankan leopards have no direct competition, they are possibly more active in daylight hours than leopards elsewhere and less likely to haul heavy kill up trees so as to fend off thieves.

An island the size of today’s Sri Lanka could not support two apex predators, though lions and tigers perhaps shared the landscape when low sea levels allowed land bridge migration with India. As one of eight or so recognized subspecies, the Lankan leopard is the only one to enjoy apex predator status.

As Andrew points out, this possible ‘keystone’ role means that studying leopards here is a simultaneous study of its prey and, by extension, the whole ecosystem. It also means that leopards are key to prevailing ecosystem balances. If leopards decline in number, for example, prey species proliferate and whatever they eat comes under pressure.

At a track junction, we exchange banter with tourists in another jeep, who jokingly blame the scientists for the fact that they, like we, have seen little by way of wildlife all morning.I explain that wildlife does a vanishing act whenever I climb into a safari vehicle. In general, when Anjali and Andrew encounter jeeps reporting leopard sightings, they are likely to head off in the opposite direction: chasing random sightings is too distracting from their main work. As we bounce along between sites, however, we observe leopard tracks in the sandy surface of the so-called road. An adult male has passed here in the past few hours.

Leopards use the roads for ease of movement but also as territorial boundaries, patrolled with scent markings. Adult male prints are squarish, with quirky little features that you can use to distinguish different individuals if you know how to look. Lacking such features, female prints are useless for this purpose.

There are 3.5 adult females for each adult male at Yala national park and the Project seeks to ascertain whether a comparable ratio prevails at Wilpattu. Scientists map three different types of range, overlapping, onto territory. Females occupy territory based on food supply for themselves and their young. Males occupy larger territories based on access to females as well as prey.

Transient leopards, mainly males, defend no particular territory but nevertheless move within mappable ranges. Since male and female cubs get born in roughly equal numbers, males must suffer high attrition to yield the skewed sex ratio among adults. Sources of attrition may include fights with other males, contending with more dangerous prey due to territorial exclusions from the easier stuff, malnutrition and its concomitant health problems, and roaming near human settlements whose inhabitants may kill nuisance animals.

By late morning, Anjali and Andrew are strapping camera traps into their new locations. When we reach the right general area for a trap as informed by GPS, tracker Bimal proves his expertise at quickly finding trees properly aligned on opposite sides of the track for camera placements. Andrew credits him with a sixth sense about picking the right trees, a valuable ‘tracking’ skill unrelated to finding wildlife. With axe and machete, Bimal and Hemantha set about clearing underbrush between the selected trees and the sandy dirt track.

Optimal positioning puts the two cameras far enough from the track to capture the whole animal in photos but close enough to catch the spots clearly. The basic operation for each trap should not take long, but problems invariably pop up. At our first installation site, there is suddenly a traffic jam as six or so safari jeeps squeeze past us and each other. It takes about ten minutes to clear, during which no work can be done. Tourist bungalows sit nearby, which explains the pile up of wildlife enthusiasts.

During the pause, Andrew points out a leopard ‘scrape’ by the edge of the trackway. The animal makes two swipes toward itself through the dirt that come together into a ‘V’ shape. It then daubs scent at the point of the V from anal glands. Anjali describes such scrapes as ‘calling cards.’ They mark territory so as to prevent confrontation among crowd-avoiding leopards and provide intriguing information such as whether a female is in her estrus.

At sites two and three both, one camera is at first strapped on a little too high, so it must be removed both times and re-fastened at the right level. At site three, one of the cameras repeatedly refuses to fire. The scientists tinker for fifteen minutes before solving the problem. At each site, Andrew and Anjali take turns on all fours, crawling leopard-like past the cameras to make sure they are working properly. Anjali thinks Andrew does the better leopard crawl but hers has its own je ne sais quoi. Zoology is fun.

On the morning I need to depart, Andrew and Anjali head into the park with Project staffer Nimalka Sanjeewani for a ‘prey count.’ Leopards are supremely adaptable as carnivores, so plenty of creatures number among their prey from time to time: you cannot meaningfully try to count them all. Hence, the Project executes ‘transects’ of selected prey species along with species of special interest: four kinds of deer (spotted, barking, sambhur and tiny, shy mouse deer), along with porcupine, jackal, boar, land monitor, buffalo, sloth bear, grey langur, toque macaque and elephant. (Leopard beware: many of these critters are dangerous, so try to avoid the grown-ups.)

There are three routes in each transect, each of them requiring a morning to complete, each beginning at exactly the same time in the morning. Transects are performed repeatedly over time so as  to yield data that can be analyzed comparatively. Jeeps proceed at painfully slow speed so as to avoid spooking the subjects and to facilitate accurate counts. Scientists record prey numbers, ages, sex, distance from jeep and odometer reading from the start point. Zoology is thrilling.

Scat analysis is a third critical Project activity. Scientists gather poop for close inspection back in the lab. Leopards digest meat and excrete quickly, so prey fur comes through neatly in droppings. Identifying fur and analyzing relative proportions illuminates leopard diet as it varies from animal to animal, place to place and time to time. Scat also yields genetic information used in mapping linkages among populations across the island. Zoology is glamorous.

Leopards live not just in protected areas but in diverse jungle habitats throughout the island, including mountain, tropical rain, river valley and dry evergreen forests. They can flourish in close proximity to humans, putting dogs and cattle at risk from time to time. Despite this flexibility and wide distribution, the Lankan leopard now makes the ‘endangered’ list (likely to go extinct) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature based on data provided by Anjali and Andrew: ‘upgraded’ so to speak from its previous classification as merely ‘vulnerable.’

Always at risk on islands, an apex predator confronts compounded danger from a fast-growing human population like Sri Lanka’s. Heavily hunted for sport in the past and poached for skins, leopards now face mounting pressure from habitat encroachment, forest fragmentation, ongoing poaching and human-leopard conflict killing. The conversion of uncultivated land to paddy fields poses a serious threat.

Having worked at Yala national park for many years, the Leopard Project currently supplements its Willpattu surveys with research in the central highlands. Focus there is on determining distribution and movement in fragmentary mosaics of tea estates, stream valleys and quasi-isolated forest patches, some of them on ridgetops too high and steep for planting.

Gyanada and Nimalka have surveyed tea plantation workers on leopard encounters. With its accumulating knowledge as to demography, ranges and behaviour, the Project paves the way for well-considered and integrated leopard conservation programs. At the moment, for example, it seems possible that local leopard populations are all in touch with neighboring populations through movement pathways, but it also seems possible that some populations have been cut off. Should we emphasize protecting current pathways or developing new ones?

Establishing ‘source and sink’ dynamics could also be a key takeaway. Source and sink inquiry recognizes that some habitats are favourable while others are marginal. High birth rates in favourable habitats sustain a dense population but some animals may regularly get pushed into more marginal habitats where deaths outnumber births. In an island-wide system, could Wilpattu be a source and central highlands a sink? Could there be more localized source/sink dynamics? (By the way, confirming source/sink relations would mean, despite the old saying, that some leopards do in fact change their ‘spots).

Understanding source/sink dynamics could aid in wise design of conservation efforts within limited resources. Should we, for example, stress protection of source habitat by building more water holes or focus instead on enhancing sink habitat by helping tea estates deal with nuisance leopards non-lethally? Lanka’s leopard will not long survive without strong, informed and thoughtful conservation effort. Aside from her own craftiness and resilience, her best hope for now lies with the Leopard Project.

(From Echelon’s archives: published in 18 November, 2015)

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  1. Sujeewa Athukorala says:

    Very well narrated article. Very interesting and very informative. Thank you

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  1. Sujeewa Athukorala says:

    Very well narrated article. Very interesting and very informative. Thank you

Sri Lanka utility to continue power cuts, regulator says no

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s state-run Ceylon Electricity Board has decided to continue power cuts, as the dry season hits the country despite orders to give 24 hours of power.

The utility said its Board “has decided to continue the demand management programme” and it has informed the regulator of this decision on January 27.

The Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka said it had not approved the power cuts “as it violate and affect the rights of 331,000 students sitting for the Advanced Level exams.”

Sri Lanka’s CEB has high running costs due to long term scuttling of planned coal plants by activists and lastly President Maithripala Sirisena.

‘CEB’s costs went up as demand went up since the last coal plant opening and steady collapse of the currency from 131 to 182 to the US dollar due to open market operations unleashed to suppress rates and operate a flexible inflation targeting by the central bank.

Even more aggressive liquidity injections after 2020 to target an output gap then busted the currency from 182 to 360 to the US dollar.

CEB has to use extra fuel from around February to April 2022 as the dry season hits reducing hydro power.

Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission has ordered the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation to supply fuel and banks to give credit for extra power.

Power Minister Kanchana Wijesekera has alleged that CPC officials agreed under duress and threat of jail sentence to supply fuel.

The CEB has to cut power in case demand outstrips supply to maintain frequency at 50 Hz to avoid cascading failures, according to sector analysts. (Colombo/Jan28/2023)

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Sri Lanka president suspends parliament till Feb 08

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe has suspended parliament till February 08, according to a gazette notice.

Parliament will re-convene at 1000 am on January 08.

President Wickremesinghe told party leaders that he would make a speech, officially declaring his intention to give effect to the 13th amendment to the constitution on provincial councils.

Provincial councils, a power sharing arrangement backed by India as a solution to the ethnic Tamil have not yet been given police and land powers. (Colombo/Jan28/2023)

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Sri Lanka, other defaulting nations have widely differing debt indicators: Expert

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka other recently defaulting nations have widely differing debt indicators, and some other countries survive with even higher levels of debt, a US based analyst has said.

“If you look at the ratio of debt to GDP, the size of the economy the number is very high, mostly because there has been a lot of depreciation, so the debt in dollars keeps growing relative to GDP,” Sergai Lanau, Deputy Chief Economist at Washington based Institute of International Finance said.

“This is sometimes over-emphasized… but this ratio at 120 is a lot.”

He was speaking at a forum organized by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka.

“Just for a reference point about 6 or 7 years ago Italy’s debt was 120 percent GDP, there was a lot of concern in the Euro area and that is a country that has the ECB. So Sri Lanka at 120 is a lot.”

Italy however is in a monetary union with Euro which is a floating exchange rate without anchor conflicts and forex shortages and basic external payment problems.

Sri Lanka is trying to bring the ratio down to 95 percent by 2032 under an International Monetary Fund backed program, according to a leaked letter from India.

“Typically for many years there was as lot of emphasis on debt ratios, when people looked at debt restructuring – or at least economists,” Lanau said.

“And that is something that always puzzled bond traders who came from the corporate sector. For them it is all about the flows and gross financing needs.

“The IMF has shifted its focus a lot financing needs over the years and it is a less of a problem now.”

Ghana has defaulted and it is trying to reduce its debt from around 90 percent to below 60 percent by 2028. It is starting at a much lower level and correcting within a shorter period to an even lower level.

Sri Lanka’s debt ratio is high but it “may or may not be a constraint”, he said.

What the … was that?

The IMF’s default workout framework is a work in progress, which has changed over the years since mass defaults hit market market countries which were denied monetary stability through intermediate regimes especially in Latin America from the early 1980s.

Until 1980, when the so-called BBC policy (now called exchange rate as the first line of defence) where countries were encouraged to bust their currencies instead of withdrawing inflationary policy, sovereign defaults were not a problem.

“During the 1970s, the risk of sovereign default was not perceived as a major concern,” the IMF itself admits.

“Most “external arrears” generated by a country were created by exchange restrictions. For example, an importer might miss a payment because the authorities were slow to release foreign exchange.

“Sovereign default had not been a problem since the Second World War.

“Therefore, the IMF’s policy framework was not equipped to confront the complications that arose in the context of the sovereign debt difficulties that emerged in the 1980s.

“In fact, it took until 1980 for the IMF’s Executive Board even to agree that a default on sovereign debt should also be covered under the external arrears policy.”

Washington based policy circles began to prescribe, inconsistent, anchor conflicting intermediate regimes with aggressive open market operations to anyone who was willing to listen after the Fed floated, in the false belief that currencies fell due to ‘overvaluation’ and not liquidity injections.

Countries like Sri Lanka where there is no doctrinal foundation in sound money and no knowledge of classical monetary theory, were easy prey, critics say.

East Asia and Japan rejected such regimes. Malaysia is a prime example which despite not having a legal hard peg, fixed itself, repaid debt ahead of time, when tin and other commodity prices collapsed in the wake of Volcker tightening, while Latin America defaulted.

Elephant in the Room

A country with a soft pegged central bank (flexible exchange rate or intermediate regime) will see debt rocket each time it suppresses interest rates to target a policy rate and triggers a currency crisis.

Once a currency crisis hits, on one had the domestic currency value of external debt which is denominated in dollars protecting sovereign bond holders, goes up.

Interest rates of domestic debt also have to go up to stop the money printing and halt forex shortages which can widen the overall deficit in the short term.

The currency collapse also kills purchasing power and the real economy slows or contracts.

Once the credibility of the exchange rate has been lost, due to excess money injected the country loses the ability to settle both imports and debt repayment by exchanging domestic money for dollars.

The reserves (savings of past years) are used for current imports and debt repayments more money is injected to sterilize the interventions to maintain the policy rate, reserves collected over several years are run down in a few months.

Falling reserves, a depreciating currency then trigger rating downgrades (usually due to so-called exchange rate of as the first line of defence which saw downgrades in 2018 and 2020 in Sri Lanka) and sovereign bond as yields soar, and market access is lost, triggering a default.

As reserves dwindle further due to holding the policy rate with new money, more downgrades follow.

Countries with flexible exchange rates/flexible inflation targeting with market access can default at virtually any level of debt, critics say.

Market Access

Sri Lanka’s debt to GDP ratio shot up over 100 percent and lost almost all its reserves following a currency crisis in 2000/2001.

But at the time (or in earlier soft-peg crises in 1988/89 and earlier) the country did not have market access and bullet repayment debt.

In Sri Lanka bonds are big part of the country’s debt.

“Once you have lost market access there is virtually no level of gross financing needs that is sustainable,” Lanau said.

Analysts say the once market access has been lost, and the IMF declares that debt is unsustainable, which blocks the World Bank and ADB from giving loans, default is almost certain.

Argentina which has the archetypal soft-pegged Latin America central bank, which sterilizes interventions, strikes zeros off the peso at intervals and get into forex trouble.

“The country got into an IMF program in mid-2018, it was a very optimistic set of IMF targets, policy adjustments,” Lanau said.

“And this IMF program did not work and the situation got critical in August 2019 at which point Argentina defaulted.”

In March 2020 the IMF had presented a debt sustainability analysis where it was expected to to get its debt to 40 percent of GDP by 2030 and foreign exchange debt service to 3 percent of GDP, Lanau said, compared to 4.5 percent for Sri Lanka to make debt sustainable.

Ecuador which had a successful pre-emptive debt re-structuring, had debt levels of around 60 percent when it went talked to bond holders.

It was an ‘easy re-structuring, Lanau said.

It was a “lot about a bunch of maturities coming due in very few years as opposed to a very high debt ratio or a situation that was very unsustainable economically.”

Ecuador however is a dollarized country where its central bank effectively died in the 1990s after the sucre collapsed to 25,000 to the US dollar.

The Central Bank of Ecuador is no longer capable of creating forex shortages or driving the people to starvation and external debt is effectively in domestic currency.

Ecuador’s gross financing needs are now down to around mid single digits, while Sri Lanka’s has shot up to around 30 percent of GDP following the currency collapse.

Ecuador central bank was set up by Edwin Kemmerer, a US money doctor, with a gold peg (no obstinate policy rate) but was corrupted in 1947 by Robert Triffin, a US Keynesian who set up Argentina style central banks in several Latin America countries that frequently defaulted from the 1980s.

Sri Lanka’s central bank was also set up in 1950 by a US money doctor with broadly similar sterilizing powers.

Sri Lanka also started to depreciate the currency from around 1980 without withdrawing inflationary policy (an earlier re-incarnation of first line of defence strategy) triggering strikes, social unrest but no sovereign default due to lack of market access.

Sovereign defaults were mostly absent during the Bretton Woods era even in Latin America when countries maintained their pegs more or less with complementary monetary policy and the IMF also supported external anchors.

However after 1980 when the US tightened policy under Chairman Paul Volcker there were widespread defaults in pegged Latin American countries which did not hike rates in tandem or sterilized interventions (resisted the BOP) trying to operate independent monetary policy.

Now there are a number of market access countries in Africa and Asia with reserve collecting central bank which are trying to operate flexible inflation targeting, another monetary policy which are in conflict with the balance of payments which are ripe for serial currency crises and default.

Clean floating central bank do not use foreign reserves for imports nor collects them. (Colombo/Dec27/2022)

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