Footprints : Leopards on the prowl

Published March 3, 2015
Women pass by a warning board with information on how to avoid a leopard and what needs to be done if a big cat comes their way.—Photo by writer
Women pass by a warning board with information on how to avoid a leopard and what needs to be done if a big cat comes their way.—Photo by writer

CLIMBING up the narrow pathways in the forest of the Galiyat, I wonder about the possibility of encountering a common leopard, the largest carnivorous species left in a country that was once home to Asiatic lions and Bengal tigers.

A mellowing of the winter is noticeable and the freshness of the earth-scented air is amazing. Having walked for a while, we approach a grocery shop in Bagh Bandi, the village where a leopard killed a five-year-old girl last month.

“I saw a leopard a few days before that fatal attack,” shopkeeper Safdar tells us. “Leopards haven’t harmed us before, though it has happened in other villages.” He suspects that the number of big cats has increased in the area as they are now spotted frequently.

The villagers here are still struggling to overcome their fear; the work day ends early, and people avoid leaving their homes after sunset. They also share their concerns about the activities of a timber mafia that, they say, has been quite active in the area for many years.

“I have been seeing them operating for the past 15 to 16 years,” says Farid. “We don’t interfere and have no idea about their identity but it’s common to see 10 to 15 log-laden mules leaving the forest every day.”

As we move further up, an officer of the wildlife department, Mohammad Nawaz, points to a spot. “That’s the place where Saba was attacked by the leopard,” he tells me. A trapping cage is lying where two tracks meet. Wildlife officials say that the department initiative to catch the animal is being opposed strongly by the people living on the slopes. They add that the fact that the villagers keep dogs, allow their livestock to roam free and do not have fenced homes also makes them vulnerable to leopard attacks.

“It was around 6.30pm,” says Rehana Bibi, Saba’s aunt. “I, along with my father and Saba, were returning home after visiting the district hospital when a leopard attacked Saba and took her away.” She says the child was alive when she was discovered injured in the bushes after a two-hour search, but died on her way to the district hospital.

The family has been facing serious financial difficulties since the killing of Saba’s father in Karachi over a year ago. He was the lone breadwinner of the family that still awaits government compensation. On our way back, we also meet Saba’s mother who had gone to Abbottabad to receive a handout from a charity.

Mohammad Pervaiz, whose three-year-old daughter survived a leopard attack more than a year ago in Bagan village, is also among the families awaiting compensation. “It took me around two and a half hours to find a vehicle and take my severely injured daughter to the district hospital in Abbottabad,” he recalls.

The wildlife department data shows that nine people have been killed and 20 injured by leopards (a protected species in the country) in Abbottabad since 1993. Seventy-six leopards have been killed in self-defence while eight have died of natural causes since 1986. Over 1,000 domestic livestock, 900 of which are goats, have either been attacked or killed by leopards since 1993.

“Most attacks occur early in the morning, or around and after sunset. This is the time when the big cat is most active,” says divisional forest and wildlife officer Faique Khan, adding that the department has been educating people on how to avoid leopard attacks.

Earlier, compensation was restricted to those families who had lost their loved ones in an attack but now compensation cover has been broadened (after the enactment of a new wildlife act last month in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and people suffering any kind of loss or injury will be offered financial help, he explains.

About deforestation, he says his department is responsible only for protected areas such as the Ayubia National Park that, according to him, has better forest density than the surrounding areas. (The village where the recent attack occurred is not part of the park.)

Biodiversity Director of the World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan Uzma Khan has been involved in research on leopards in Pakistan for years. She says: “Increasing deforestation, human interference in leopards’ habitat and the killing of the big cat’s natural prey are forcing the species to turn to human settlements for food. Cases of human-leopard conflict can increase if no measures are taken to protect leopard habitat.”

According to her, only seven leopards have been individually identified in four years in the Ayubia National Park and its surrounding areas. Many have been killed and it’s not true to say that their number is increasing since there has never been a baseline study on their population status. Leopard attacks, she says, have occurred more on the western sides of the Ayubia National Park where the forest cover has been significantly reduced.

“The range of a male leopard is bigger than the present size of the Ayubia National Park [the only protected area for leopards in the Galiyat],” she says. “The government should increase the size of the protected park and launch a grey goral breeding and release programme to provide food to the big cats.”

Published in Dawn March 3rd , 2015

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