Sprawling over 17,000-hectare land, the biodiversity-rich Margalla Hills National Park has become a thriving habitat for the fading common Asian leopards.

The national park is home to over 600 plant species, medicinal herbs, shrubs, around 350 bird species, 300 mammals and 20 different assort of reptiles especially snakes that make it the undiscovered heaven of the Potohar region’s biodiversity marvel.

Sunk into deep shrouds of foliage and green cover, the mesmerising trails of Margallas narrate the tale of biodiversity conservation, hunting, poaching of wildlife and preservation of natural heritage.

Once the biome’s migratory species that used to descend from Galiat and Ayubia National Park during heavy snowfall in winters and return to high altitudes in summers, the wildcats have been listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The latest footage captured by a hidden camera of the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board once again ascertained the presence of this species at Margallas. The guardians of the national park had also initiated a study in the recent past to ascertain the presence of leopards in Margallas — a recreational abode for the capital residents.

Dwellers of the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad as well as those coming from other parts of the country frequently visit Margalla hills to enjoy their leisure time in the serene environment as well as for hiking and photography.

The Margalla hills is a unique example of a leopard preserve zone near human settlement. Margalla hills has always been a source of attraction for visitors due to its rich habitat, unique biodiversity and comely atmosphere. Besides flora and fauna, we also have wildlife in this national park including common Asian leopard.

It is a success story of promising and dedicated conservation efforts that helped in preserving the critically endangered wildcat species.

Ecosystem restoration as advocated by the climate change experts was a challenging task and lockdowns during Covid epidemics enabled the authorities for the conservation of Margallas and Trail-6. The temporary halt of human intervention also brought a boom in the revival of other animal and plant species. For decades, Margalla hills is a repository to wild boars, monkeys, barking deer, foxes, jackals, porcupines, Kalij pheasants and numerous plant species. Now with the arrival of leopards, they are also being provided with a living environment to embrace Trail-6 as their new abode.

According to the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board, there were two families of leopards in the Margalla Hills National Park comprising seven members. A female and two male leopards are exclusively residing in the leopard preserve zone given the names of Shehzada, Shehzadi and Sultan.

Leopard is a shy animal that avoids human encounter in wild. It is nocturnal as it sleeps at daytime and hunts or patrols in the dark.  The people venturing into Margalla hills however should not to put at risk their lives by unnecessarily teasing these wildcats by capturing their photos. It is highly advisable to abstain from intruding into their area that may scare them resulting into deadly conflict.

A study carried out by the Quaid-i-Azam University students in 2019 said that leopards’ presence in Margallas was not a threat rather it indicated a healthy ecosystem. “Leopards have emerged as the top predator ruling the food chain of Margalla Hills National Park and their thriving number has helped in maintaining balance among various other species,” said IWMB manager operations Sakhawat Ali.

“Like any head of a tribe or clan, leopard is the boss or premier of Margalla hills.” The Margalla Hills is a precious bounty of nature and its centuries-old trees grown in an abrupt dramatic manner reveal mysterious movie scenes showcasing the mighty jungle. Its indomitable rein of plants serves as lungs for capital residents absorbing carbon dioxide emitted by ever-increasing vehicular population.

Leopards in Islamabad

A leopard pauses to take a cautious look around before continuing its way through thick forest in the Margalla Hills overlooking Islamabad — once a rare sight, but now one recorded and tracked by software and cameras.

The cat, once found all over Pakistan but increasingly endangered as humans encroach on their habitat, has been recorded painstakingly by the 20 camera traps attached to trees throughout the forested hills that are also popular with hikers.

“They are being seen on our cameras every day,” said Asad Hyat, chief forest guard for the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board. Software identifying the leopards’ distinctive rosette patterns has shown seven of the big cats are in the area, which rangers say is a good sign after a significant decline in their numbers over the past few decades.

“They are not so common anymore, because they are being killed mercilessly,” said IWMB Chairperson. “They were once found all over Pakistan, in almost all the provinces, and now the numbers are declining very fast because of loss of habitat, because of poaching, because of people hunting them for their skin, for their trophies.”

To help the cats, the government has ordered a leopard preservation zone with a roughly 10km (6.2 miles) radius be set up at Margalla Hills in an effort to protect the endangered species’ natural habitat.

In recent years there have been signs of a leopard comeback in the park located just outside of Islamabad. Conservationists say the animals likely drifted to the Margalla area — foothills of the Himalaya mountains — as it became heavily forested over the years.

And they stayed on because they found prey, a stable environment and an eco-system that could support them. Wildlife rangers check paw tracks on the forest soil daily to monitor the leopards’ movements and numbers carefully.

They use the footage from their cameras to record their activity. This is just the beginning of the scientific study, it will take time.

News of the leopards has slowly spread and the IWMB says it is hoping to conduct tours to show the footprints and signs of the leopards in the wild to curious visitors.

Special Assistant to Prime Minister (SAPM) on Climate Change Malik Amin Aslam, known for making lots of unfulfilled claims, said on Aug 27, 2021, that Asia’s first-ever ‘leopard reserve’ will be established in Margalla Hills National Park soon.

He said the protected area of Islamabad has become the permanent new habitat of the wild cats that earlier used to descend to the National Park only during winter seasons and would return to a higher altitude in summers.

Amin said that a proper mechanism would be devised for controlled and safe mobility into the leopard reserve through information guides and by deploying guards to avoid any human-wildlife conflict.

Margalla Hills Leopards face poisoning threat

Locals allegedly leave out poisoned meat for big cats to protect livestock

Software identifying the leopards’ distinctive rosette patterns has shown seven of the big cats are in the area. 

These leopards in the Margalla Hills’ terrain, reportedly numbering eight in the locality, are vulnerable to extinction not by poachers’ guns or natural causes, but deliberate poisoning.

For their increasing food requirement, the leopard family is forced to prey on nearby localities’ domesticated animals, exposing them to a constant threat of deliberate poisoning, a practice common among locals in the past to protect their livestock. They had reportedly been throwing poison-laced meat loaves in the forest to get rid of these large cats.

“It’s an established fact that in the past, poison as a deceptive weapon had been used against these predators,” said a resident of Shahdara village.

Sharing their ordeal, the residents have asked for the establishment of a compensation fund, saying that a number of their goats and half a dozen cows and calves have recently been hunted by wild cats, causing huge financial losses.

“My cow was killed within a radius of just 200 metres from the house, and we strongly suspect leopard involvement as the villagers have seen it moving with a pair of cubs nearby,” said a villager.

Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB) had reportedly found the body of a leopard in a deteriorating condition in early 2018. “After that, we started awareness campaign regarding the importance of wildlife for the ecosystem”, said IWMB Operations Manager Sakhawat Ali.