Leopards in Islamabad’s Margalla Hills

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.

The Islamabad Wildlife Management Board claims that the Common Asian Leopard’s daytime patrolling is natural and not an abnormal movement or threat to humans venturing into the Margalla Hills National Park (MHNP).

The Board (IWMB) recently captured a male leopard strolling in the leopard preserve zone during the afternoon at 13:30 hours which gained huge traction at the social, print and electronic media.

However, the IWMB Chairperson clarified that the movement was inside the protected zone and it was not a threat to the human entering into the national park.

Experienced naturalist and ornithologist of Pakistan, Prof Dr Zahid Baig Mirza says that the approaching cool weather would induce male leopards to attempt to enter female territory with full consciousness of female’s tolerance mood. “The changes in weather conditions induce male reproductive hormones activation, that impact change in its state of mind, for breeding. It may wander even during the day time,” Dr Mirza noted. Dr Z.B. Mirza claimed that a strong male used to become dominant and the weaker male was not allowed to hunt or breed in its territory.

“The dominant male keeps its territory adjacent to a mature female’s territory. During her non-breeding period, she does not allow any male to enter her territory. She allows a dominant male to visit her territory, only when her breeding hormones induce her to do so. Mature females cannot enter each other’s territories,” he concluded.

Vice President, Pakistan Wildlife Foundation, Safwan Ahmed said that the fact of Leopards being nocturnal was becoming scientifically obsolete both in the cases of African and Common Asiatic Leopards.

He informed that there were two major factors, one the availability of food and hunger.

“If the leopard is resting on a tree and finds any deer or prey passing below it will definitely descend and chase its prey be it morning or evening then it will keep no difference in its movement durations as the condition of hunger will force it to chase,” he added.

The second, he said, human was factor that included three categories like human juvenile behavior, shepherd attitude that considered it as his enemy number one and in-case of other humans it will try to abstain encounter at that moment.  He mentioned that the leopard was unaware that human movement had expedited after modern means of transportation and mobility.

“The daytime movement is not unusual now rather it is occurring in India, Pakistan and throughout the Asia and African especially in Savannah region. We find it on National Geographic and Discovery channels’ documentaries showing leopards chasing its prey in daytime,” he added.

Ahmed mentioned that the propitious aspect of this development was that thriving number of leopards in the Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), Northern Areas, and MHNP. It was a healthy indicator whereas the male leopards spotted in camera traps were muscular and the experts were satisfied with this development, he added.

The sexual behavior highlighted by Dr Mirza had fast and aggressive movement of leopards during which they ignore human presence even, the PWF President underlined. He further mentioned that the cattle movement was also a reason that used to disturb Leopards in the wild.

“The MHNP area is vast and cattle presence is sure and the local people are highly resistant in case of any administration or restriction,” he added. Moreover, there might be confrontation between the leopards as one had to die during the contest to gain control over the territory near a female leopard to mate and breed, he added. He pointed out that leopards had higher mortality ratio and was considered as the most aggressive among the big cats.

“Tigers are the second most aggressive and kill each other in confrontations whereas lions are on the third position in this regard but have a fifty-fifty chance of death in conflicts,” he concluded.

When contacted an IWMB official informed that no grazing was allowed in the national park as it was barred under the Board’s law.

The Wildlife Board Warns People about Leopards’ Increased Movement

The Board (IWMB) on Nov 19, 2022 warned the local population of Margalla Hills National Park to take special precautions due to increased presence of wild leopards during winter season.

According to the IWMB official statement, the wild leopards were often seen near the rural population of the Margalla Hills National Park in winters.

The statement further read that the local population and tourists should avoid unnecessary movement in the national park.

Moreover, the local people should not send their cattle to the forest for grazing. The Wildlife Board advised the masses to keep livestock in a safe place within walled enclosures during the night hours.

Likewise, the households near the forest should not leave small children, women and elderly people unnecessarily in the wild. The IWMB was of the view that disruption of the leopard’s natural habitat could be harmful.

The Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) administration on Nov 20, 2022 closed Trail 3 for the general public after leopards were sighted in Saidpur village. The Islamabad district administration also asked citizens especially motorcyclists to refrain from travelling alone in the village located next to the protected area. The ICT admin issued the directives after some motorbike riders attempted to speed away after seeing a leopard but they sustained injuries after they lost balance and fell off the motorcycle.

Residents of Saidpur village have also been asked to report to the police on the 15 helpline in case of emergency.

The Islamabad district admin, however, asked the residents not to panic as police and wildlife department volunteers will perform their duty to keep an eye on the intruding leopards.

A CDA official said that teams have been sent to Margalla Hills and Saidpur village after the incident. He said that teams of the CDA, the district administration, Islamabad police and the wildlife department have been posted in protected areas near the population.

Experts demanded the quarters concerned to come forward for a collective effort to form a technical forum to gather scientific evidence in order to tackle the growing leopard encounter issue.

Pakistan Wildlife Foundation Vice Chairman Safwan Ahmed said that the endangered species of leopards is being taken seriously by the IWMB and stakeholders to ensure its conservation that has thrived in a short span of time in Margalla Hills National Park (MHNP). It had resulted into overpopulation of the wildcats that became a nuisance, similar to that in India where leopards were also thriving.

One suggestion is to capture some of the pairs of leopards that might be sent to the northern areas to control its population in the Margallas and study its territorial spread across the region.

The National Park is surrounded by a population that made it vulnerable to human-wildlife conflicts. All mammologists would have to sit together to devise a solution to this problem.

It is an offense to harm a leopard and persons found guilty of the crime would be fined as per the law.

Islamabad Wildlife Board Advises Citizens to Follow Directives

With the leopard population thriving in Margalla Hills National Park (MHNP) the hikers must now strictly follow the directives and avoid going away from designated tracks and routes, advised the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board.

New video footage obtained from one of the cameras installed at various locations of the Margalla hills showed a leopard roaming around a pond of water near designated Trail V. It clearly shows that leopards are now claiming their areas and enhancing their natural habitat. The leopard families have again made the national park their permanent habitat and their number is also expected to grow in the coming years.

The establishment of the Leopard Preservation Zone was one of the important measures taken in the last few years to make the national park a safe natural habitat for wildlife species, especially leopards. It is pertinent to mention here that the increasing human intervention, construction activities, and cutting of trees had forced leopards and other wildlife species to leave national parks for other destinations.

The lockdowns imposed time and again after the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic provided wildlife species a cordial environment due to which they started returning back to their previous habitats in the national park. The boundary of the Leopard Preservation Zone touches some sides of the forest areas that are quite close to designated hiking trails such as Trail V and Trail VI. The guided tours are arranged for the visitors in forest areas to make them aware of the protection of the natural habitat of the leopards that have now become the permanent residents of the national park after so many years.

The visitors should now observe precautionary measures and never go away from the designated routes and tracks to avoid any untoward incident.

In late Nov 2022, a campaign was launched to create awareness amongst the people living in the vicinity of the Margalla Hills National Park (MHNP) about co-existence with wildlife animals, especially leopards. According to the details, the local administration has constituted different teams that will carry out patrolling in the national park on motorbikes round-the-clock. The members of these teams will also make the local people aware of the leopard population and their style of living in the forest area. They will also give them basic knowledge about what to do when any one of them confronts a leopard or any other wildlife animal.

It is pertinent to mention here that the national park is a protected area and the local people cannot cut trees or construct structures on its premises. But some 300,000 people living here mainly depend upon the natural resources of this park. Human interventions and cattle grazing have reduced vegetative cover by almost half in the southwestern part of the hills.

The local people are quite scared after the recent incident in which three leopards entered a village after sunset to hunt buffaloes. The constitution of teams is part of the efforts being made by the local administration to educate the people about co-existence with the wildlife animals in the forest areas.

An official said that “leopards generally avoid humans and they tolerate proximity to humans better than lions and tigers. They are generally very scared of humans and avoid people, but often come into conflict with them when raiding livestock.”

In December 2022, the Ministry of Climate Change has declared Trail-6 at the Margalla Hills National Park a dedicated leopard preservation zone. The preservation zone for common Asian leopards has been allocated in the Kalinjer area of Trail-6.

“We have closed off trail 6 of Margalla Hills National Park to make it a unique leopard preserve in Islamabad. It is Pakistan and the Climate Change Ministry’s most important and successful initiative to enhance our biodiversity and reverse some of the human encroachments. The new leopard preserve nestled in the capital is an index of our commitment to growing biodiversity, expanding the natural habitats of big cats which are “ecosystems engineers. This is their space we humans encroached on, let’s share the earth with them, not drive them out. We do open this zone for guided tours in the hope that we can keep our wildlife in the state it is meant to be – free and easy to roam in their natural habitat. Big cats and leopards are ecosystem engineers, they preserve the habitat in a unique way and maintain its system. If you want to enhance biodiversity and reverse terrible encroachment on wildlife and species under threat, it is time for us to work on trails and habitats such as these. I’m very proud to say it is one of our biggest successes and I thank wildlife rangers and everyone involved in this.” said Minister for Climate Change Sherry Rehman in a video she shared on her Twitter handle.

The Islamabad Wildlife Management Board officials said that the conservation site would help protect critically endangered wildcats and promote wildlife tourism in one of the unique ecosystems close to a human settlement. They said that the Trail-6 would no more be an open trail due to the presence of leopards, estimated to be between six to eight.

On November 19, 2022, around four common Asian Leopards were spotted in the model village of Saidpur which caused fear and panic among residents. The endangered big cats reportedly intruded into the village located next to the protected area in the evening and hunted a goat. The Board staff was also rushed to the spot to ensure the protection of the public and the wild species.

Earlier, Board Chairperson Rina Saeed Khan said that leopards were being killed mercilessly. “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.”

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 Himalayan mountains – as it became heavily forested over the years. And they stayed on because they found prey, a stable environment and an ecosystem that could support them.

IWMB officials said leopards have become permanent residents of Margalla Hills National Park. The animal earlier used it to descend from the upper peaks in winter, they said.

The officials said that over 300 birds, 350 plants and 20 snake species can be found at the Margalla Hills National Park which make it a biodiversity-rich ecosystem.

Rina Saeed earlier said that a minimum of seven leopards had been captured by the cameras and there were probably more of them there.

Trail-6 was shut after the spotting of the first leopard and during the Covid-19 lockdown, and its biodiversity thrived which increased the animal’s population. However, hiking trails II, III and IV were reopened with a set of guidelines for visitors while Trail 6 remain closed as it has become part of the Leopard Preservation Zone. However, guided tours under the protection of guards will be arranged for them.

Trail III was closed for visitors after three leopards entered into Saidpur Village that caused panic among the people. The relevant authorities have discussed the issue and decided to take more measures for security and safety of the visitors. The local  administration has issued guidelines for the visitors to ensure their safety.

The Ratta Hotar trail has not been opened as the patrolling of Park Rangers is yet to be started in this area. So it is not quite safe for the visitors at the moment. The hiking trails are popular spots for hikers and trekkers who come in large numbers to enjoy calm and serene green environment in the heart of the Margalla Hills. The wildlife species including leopards have started returning back to these hills due to which they are often spotted by the people living in the vicinity of the national park.

According to the guidelines “If leopard is in your immediate area, be calm and allow it leave on its own. Don’t panic and avoid screaming at it or attacking it. Don’t approach too closely, especially if you see cubs, either alone or with their mother. If a leopard charges, shout, clap your hands and wave your arms to appear bigger,” they said. They said “Do not run crying or shouting. Remember it can chase you at 50-60 km/h, leap 6.5m horizontally and 3.5m vertically. Avoid going at dawn and dusk, as leopards are usually seen at these times during the day.”

In mid December 2022, the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board prepared a comprehensive guideline for visitors to create awareness for avoiding leopard encounters and attacks in Margalla Hills National Park.

The protected area has emerged as a unique biodiversity-rich nature preserve zone that is thriving with all of its species of birds, plants, animals, reptiles, and insect life. It also had become home to the endangered species of common Asian Leopards that used to descend from higher mountain regions in winter amid heavy snowfall.

The increased patrolling of the wildcats even in day times have been captured in camera traps of the Board that had rung alarm bells for the authorities to ensure mass mobilisation and sensitisation to amicably manage the public movement and wildlife in the national park.

Board’s member Z.B. Mirza prepared an awareness manual for the locals and tourists. He maintained that there was no precedent of human-wildlife conflict in the National Park due to the balanced number of prey available in the natural environment for the leopards.

In Mid February Leopard Comes to Defense Housing Society

At least six people, including two wildlife department personnel, were injured in an attack by a wild leopard that entered the civilian population in Sector 2 of Defense Housing Society located in Islamabad.

Rescue 1122, Islamabad police and the ICT district administration failed to arrest the leopard despite an eight-hour-long operation.

Eyewitnesses said that at 3:30 pm, a large-sized wild leopard suddenly entered the population and attacked the security guard. The leopard bit the security guard in the waist and he fell on the ground.

The private security staff shifted the injured security guard to PIMS Hospital and summoned Rescue 1122 to the spot. Rescue 1122 staff from Rawalpindi reached the spot but could not start the operation due to the absence of wild leopard control equipment and called the Islamabad Wildlife Department to the spot. Rescue 1122 spokesman said that rescue personnel have asked the residents of the area to stay indoors. Rescue personnel kept making announcements with the help of loudspeakers.

DHA Phase II residents, spooked by the encounter called Rescue 1122 and the Punjab Wildlife and Parks Department to net the wild beast.

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.

In early December 2022, another 15-year-old dead male leopard was found in the Kalinjer area. The National Veterinary Hospital, Ministry of National Food Security and Research, did not find any traces of poison in its postmortem report. According to the report, the heart, lungs, kidney, liver and other parts of the leopard had been sent to the laboratory to ascertain if the leopard had been poisoned by the local villagers after it was spotted at the Saidpur Village of Islamabad. There were fears that villagers might have poisoned the predator especially after it was spotted on a rooftop of a house in Saidpur village.

The Wildlife Board attributed his death to a fight to occupy territory between big cats. The Board alluded that the dead leopard possibly may not part of the leopard family that is currently living in the Margallah Hills National Park. According to wildlife experts, fights for larger territorial purposes are common among big cats like leopards. December is end of mating season for common leopards (leopards have already paired) and extra male intrusion is not tolerated.

The database showed that at least eight individual common leopards were identified in National Park through camera trap study that was conducted in 2021. The 15-year-old dead male leopard was not one of them and might be new comer in the national park. His body was found in remote forest area between Kot Jandan and Sinyari village. The lab report revealed fracture in skull but no pathogen was detected. There was also no bullet wound on his body.

Leopard Killed in March 2023 

Body of Leopard has been for medical examination to ascertain cause of death. 

The Islamabad Wildlife Management Board in March 2023 initiated a probe to find the culprits after a bullet-ridden body of the endangered common Asian Leopard native to Margalla Hills National Park was recovered from the Shahdara area of Islamabad. The issue came to the notice of the Wildlife Board after videos of the corpse of the Leopard by the locals made rounds on social media. A tourist narrating in the video revealed that he was on a picnic at the Shahdara recreation spot where he found the decomposing corpse of the wildcat with its paws dismembered. He claimed that the body was decaying as insects could be seen on the decaying carcass of the wildcat and it appeared to be some days old. The tourist demanded the Board take notice of the issue and investigate the matter as either it was a wild animal or a pet of someone.

Later, the Board in a statement, confirmed that a dead leopard was found in Shahdara Valley. “An investigation is being conducted regarding the death of the leopard. Muhammad Junaid, the local man who made the video of the dead leopard, is being interrogated,” it added.

The IWMB had prepared a preliminary medical report of the leopard and according to the initial reports, the leopard was shot eleven times. The Scientific Committee of IWMB would make recommendations to the local police for further investigation in the light of the medical report, it added.

The IWMB also issued an X-ray of the leopard that indicated multiple bullet entrance holes penetrated the body of the wildcat.

Leopard Killed in December 2022

A leopard lost life in an accident near Nicholson’s Monument on GT Road had descended from the mountains due to low temperature and illegal construction work in their natural habitats.

The leopards are expanding their natural habitat in the protected Margalla Hills National Park (MHNP) and reclaiming those areas that they left many years ago due to increasing human interventions.

The Sinyari area from where a dead leopard was found and now location of this incident showed that the big cats are moving away from those areas where illegal construction is under way by the developers.

The leopard was killed in the accident on GT road (direction from Islamabad to Taxila) just below Nicholson monument. Leopard jumped out onto road (perhaps chasing a prey) and got run over by a truck. Then another car also hit it. A motorist who witnessed this incident took footage of the leopard that was lying dead on the road.

The Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB) sent a team to recover body of leopard for autopsy but, unfortunately, it had gone missing. The IWMB officials were trying to locate eyewitnesses to file First Information Report (FIR) at local police station in Sangjani. The Punjab Wildlife Department team from Rawalpindi district also reached the spot and continued the search along the IWMB team, but remained unsuccessful.

It is illegal to remove the remains of the endangered common leopard as the law states “Any wild animal found dead or dying or which has been killed or caught otherwise than in accordance with the provisions of the Ordinance or the rules, and any trophy or meat thereof, shall be the property of the federal government.”

Destruction of habitat is forcing these elusive creatures, already declared ‘critically endangered’ species, in a desperate struggle for survival. The common leopards are the largest predators of the ecosystem of the national park and they play an important role in maintaining its health.

They sit at the top of the food chain and manage population of herbivores and also remove the unhealthy animals from their habitats. Balanced population of wild herbivores is critical to the health of forest as they can easily overgraze, which can cause problems for other animal species.

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