Wildlife conservation efforts, particularly for the common leopard in the hills of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), have had little effect as more than 60 common leopards have been illegally hunted in the past four years.
According to game wardens in the AJK Wildlife Department, seven common leopards were killed in November and December 2013 alone.
In some cases, automatic weapons are being used to kill the endangered species listed as ‘near threatened’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“It’s like the annihilation of an exotic species,” said a helpless game warden in Kotli when contacted over the phone.
Giving a recent example, the game warden told Dawn about a female leopard which was killed using automatic weapons on December 28, 2013.
“We later discovered that she was pregnant with two cubs,” he said, adding that a police report was then registered against the hunting party. However, no arrests were made even after the game warden identified individuals in the hunting party.
“Instead, the police and I were soon forced to run for cover as the hunting party, which included my nephew, opened fire on us,” said the game warden.
He said the hunters were either strong people or were backed by influentials in the area.
Similarly, in late November 2013, another leopard was smoked out of its cave and then clubbed and axed to death. These leopards were killed in the Punch and Kotli districts of AJK.
According to the wildlife department, there have never been cases of common leopards attacking or killing people.
“There have been minor incidents only for which people are to be blamed. Last year, a man saw a leopard in the bush and hit it with a stick. In defence, the big cat scratched the man’s face,” the game warden said.
He added that a similar case was reported when a woman tried to hit a leopard to scare it away. “The leopard scratched the woman and took off.”
Dr Anis Rehman of the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation, a local NGO working on conservation efforts of indigenous species in AJK, said none of the leopards had come into conflict with local residents.
“We are losing this important species as we deliberate over phone calls and exchange emails on what is being done. It does not seem to bother the government which is not taking immediate actions to save the common leopard,” he said.
Dr Anis believed more resources needed to be injected into the wildlife department to save the common leopard from completely vanishing from the forests of Pakistan.
While AJK wildlife department said influentials were hunting leopards for fun, conservation organisations attribute the increase in illegal hunting to conflict between people and the animal.
“The figures may not be accurate but the trend is very disturbing. We have taken notice of the issue,” said Director Biodiversity World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Uzma Khan who has been supporting and educating local communities scattered in the hills of AJK to be more tolerant towards the big cat in Punch and Kotli districts.
WWF has been educating locals to improve on grazing techniques while discouraging the free grazing system where domestic animals are allowed to wander off.
She emphasised that hunting of the common leopard was prohibited because it was a protected species.
“Because there is no punishment, those with resources will exploit the system. It is also wrong that the media portrays these exotic cats as bloodthirsty beasts,” she said.
Providing an example, she said last week the media described a leopard captured in Sialkot as a beast which resulted in a negative image of the animal and decreased its chances of survival.
Uzma Khan lamented that there were no concrete measures or conservations efforts by the government to protect the common leopard from vanishing completely.
However, the exact number of the common leopard in the wild, starting from where Punch River enters at the Pakistan-India border all the way down to the Margalla Hills, has never been known.
Uzma Khan explained that leopards covered significant territory. “We collared a leopard in Ayubia National Park last year which covered four to five kilometres in a single day.
A leopard spotted in a particular area can also be spotted in a far off distance the same day, making it difficult to count their exact number,” she explained.
Dr Ali Nawaz, a professor in Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad and founder of the Snow Leopard Conservation Trust, echoed along similar lines while giving the example of a snow leopard that was collared.
The leopard spent summers in Afghanistan and the winters in Chitral, he said.
Dr Nawaz has recently concluded a research on the common leopard in Ayubia National Park stretching into the forest of Nathia Gali, Dunga Gali and Khanspur. Dr Ali Nawaz tested 100 samples of feces collected in the park and the results were also published in the International Scientific Journal earlier this month.
“We found that livestock made up more than 80 per cent of the leopard’s diet. This is not surprising as the animal’s natural prey has almost vanished due to expanding settlements and loss of habitat.
Domesticated animals are easier to hunt,” Dr Ali Nawaz told Dawn while explaining that conflict between leopards and man was becoming inevitable.
He did not blame the AJK wildlife department which he believed lacked the resources and capacity to protect the common leopard from illegal hunting.
Effective management plan of leopards minimize attacks on local people and livestock, as well as leopard conservation. Pakistan constitutes large forest areas that are suitable habitats for wildlife e.g. big cat (leopard). The range of leopard is from Himalayan forest up to tree line or lower altitude valleys in the arid mountainous regions. In Azad Jammu and Kashmir the leopard lives around the valleys of Muzaffarabad. Conservation of leopard is more difficult due to their wide range that penetrates into human dominated areas. The penetration of leopard into the human landscapes may have multiple complexities and conflicts but main fear evokes due to its abundance lead to attacks on humans.
It is commonly reported that the occurrence of carnivores in the human landscapes cause livestock depredation. Depredation of livestock is often causing revenge killings of key species by farmers. Various studies describe that the depredation can be prevented by adopting proper management strategies. Livestock depredation is a cause of human-leopard conflict worldwide. There is hardly any inviolate space for the carnivores outside the protected areas. However, the extent of conflict is raised, when the species in question have wide range and highly adoptable like common leopard. The presence of carnivore species like common leopard in human populated landscape will differentially proceed to predation on livestock. Carnivores density (leopard) dependent on prey density.
Conflict manifest in and around rural agricultural landscape where human beings are bounded by limited resources and knowledge in dealing with conflict. It is strongly admired that the conflict can be resolved by the attitude, cooperation and concerns of the local community. To mitigate conflict there is required understating about carnivore species. This situation is more critical in Pakistan where carnivore population has been greatly reduced while no research has been done about the conflict pattern of leopard guild with humans. Leopard has been never popular in Pakistan especially in communities where people lose livestock during predation. Fortunately the killing of leopards by herder community is not common or it has never been done openly. By adoption of proper conservation and management strategies and implementation of rules related to livestock and carnivore species the leopards reappeared and provided wide range cover including forest settlement in the mountainous of AJK.
The Machiara National Park (MNP) located in AJK Himalayan region of Pakistan, located on the right bank of the river Neelum about 35 km from Human-leopard conflict in MNP, AJK, Muzaffarabad while 165km Northeast of Islamabad area was declared in 1982 as game reserve under the AJK Wildlife Act 1975 that was upgraded to a National Park in 1996. MNP falls in the moist temperate zone with cold winter and deep snow, high peaks remain in snow covered till June or even longer. The mean annual rainfall is 1526.7 mm.
MNP explores Himalayan biodiversity hotspot. The carnivore species exists in area include leopard (Panthera pardus), Snow leopard (Uncia uncia). Leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), Black bear (Ursus thibetanus), Asiatic jackal (Canis aureus), Red fox (Vulpesvulpes) Yellow throated martin (Martes flavi- gula) and Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). In MNP there are 42 recorded mammal species and 100 bird species including both migratory and resident, while few species of reptiles (n=25) and amphibians (n=7) have also been recorded.
High species richness in MNP represents diversity in habitats, which is due to great variations in extreme altitudes and slopes of mountains of MNP. Due to harsh environment people work for grazing and farming they utilize the forest land for these purposes. Machiara National Park comprises of 3 Union Councils viz., Bherri, Machiara and Serlisacha constitutes 30 villages.