On a recent visit to the mountain resort of Nathia Gali in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), I clambered up the narrow and steep path to the Lalazaar Wildlife Park to revisit the snow leopard being kept in captivity there.

I was attending a workshop on climate change organised by the Heinrich Boll Foundation based in Islamabad with a group of journalists interested in environmental reporting.

The last time I was there in 2012, I wrote a blog piece "Snow Leopard in a Birdcage" in which I had criticised the local wildlife department for not feeding the snow leopard properly and for housing it in a small enclosure meant for pheasants, causing injury to the animal.

I had hoped things would change for the better for the male snow leopard named Sohni or Sundar.

Promises were made of shifting him to a larger, purpose-built enclosure and there was plenty of talk of money being allocated for it by the provincial government.

Four years on, the only thing that had improved for Sohni was that his birdcage had grown in size.

He looked bored but otherwise healthy as he sat atop his shed looking at us lazily in the cool, summer evening.

Sohni has been living in a birdcage for the past six years. Photo provided by the author
Sohni has been living in a birdcage for the past six years. Photo provided by the author

The sun was setting yet hundreds of tourists were still trekking up to Lalazaar.

But not everyone was happy about what they saw.

One lady, who had brought her three children to see Sohni, was disappointed after finding out that the snow leopard was kept in such cramped conditions.

She didn't think it was worth trekking up and told me her children felt really bad for Sohni.

Sohni's past is certainly more colourful than his present. Shahbaz Sharif’s eldest son, Hamza Sharif, allegedly acquired the snow leopard cub from a source in Central Asia illegally.

The Convention on the International Trade against Endangered Species, to which Pakistan is a signatory, bans the trade of endangered animals.

Sharif kept the cub in his house for six months in nearby Doonga Gali, where it was reportedly taken care of and fed well.

But six years ago, WWF-Pakistan learnt about Sohni being kept in illegal captivity and approached Sharif, convincing him to hand the animal over to a local zoo to avoid bad publicity.

This is how Sohni ended up in the Lalazar Wildlife Park.

I had hoped that the environmentally inclined Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government would do more for Sohni after coming to power in the 2013. But so far, there has not been any action taken to improve his lot.

As one friend recently quipped, “perhaps you should tell the PTI that it’s a political defection from the Noon League and they might do something about it!”

Experts say that only around 3,500 to 7,000 wild snow leopards remain in the mountain regions of Central Asia, including the 200 or so in the mountain ranges of Pakistan. In addition, there are between 600 and 700 snow leopards in zoos around the world.

In Pakistan, there are currently two snow leopards in captivity: Sohni and a female snow leopard Lovely, also known as Lolly, in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB).

Lovely was found in December 2012 by local villagers in the nearby Khunjerab National Park after being abandoned by her mother.

The villagers say the injured six-month-old cub was deserted by her mother when the cub failed to cross a river in Khunjerab with her.

Snow leopard cubs cannot survive in the wild once taken from their mothers because it is their mothers who teach them how to hunt.

Lovely, also called Lolly, in her cage in Sust, near the Khunjerab National Park. Photo provided by the author
Lovely, also called Lolly, in her cage in Sust, near the Khunjerab National Park. Photo provided by the author

The wildlife department of GB was alerted by the villagers and the cub was moved to a rehabilitation centre in Sust, the closest town near the Khunjerab National Park.

The centre has a small wire mesh cage with a flimsy notice put up by the Park and Wildlife Division Hunza-Nagar, urging visitors not to give the animal “any food or other items without the prior permission of the wildlife authority”.

Unfortunately, the snow leopard was treated so poorly in the last few years that she currently suffers from malnutrition and sits listlessly in her cage, barely switching her tail.

Dr Ali Nawaz of the Snow Leopard Foundation in Pakistan has been actively trying to do something positive for Lovely.

The organisation has designed and raised funds to construct a purpose-built enclosure for her up in the picturesque Naltar valley, which should be open to public soon.

He told me that by the end of August this year, they would be shifting the female snow leopard to the enclosure, which they have designed in accordance with international standards.

They will then hand the centre over to the GB government to run it.

Lovely will soon be moving into her new home. Photo provided by the author
Lovely will soon be moving into her new home. Photo provided by the author

While Lovely has a bright future, what about poor Sohni stuck in Lalazaar?

So far, Dr Nawaz has not been asked to develop a new enclosure for Sohni but he is ready to provide technical support should the government ask.

Every winter when it snows in Nathia Gali, Sohni is sent down to Abbottabad. Dr Nawaz told me that it must be stressful for the animal. He said it would be better to shift the snow leopard to its natural habitat.

As for any suggestion to house both Sohni and Lovely in the same enclosure in order to encourage breeding, Dr Nawaz is against such a proposition. They can barely take care of these two — imagine the headache if there were more.

Photos are by the author.

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