Misunderstood by humans, Pakistan’s wild animals may need a press club of their own

Islamabad's Deeaitchay saga sheds light on glaring issues of human-wildlife conflict in Pakistan.
Published March 13, 2023

“If animals could speak a language, they would be protesting outside the press club every day,” said wildlife conservator Javed Mahar. The word animal in his statement includes all types of creatures, from the wild to the tamed and the captives. In Pakistan, animals of all species and breeds live a despicable life, mostly quietly, except for a special appearance every now and then.

One such show — as is usually termed by spectators alias the public — was broadcast live on both television and social media last month when a leopard ran amok in a residential area in Islamabad. The animal, who looked visibly distraught and agitated, dashed from one house to another seeking an escape but only ended up running into walls of bungalows as a group of clueless people chased it.

After playing hide and seek for nearly six hours, the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board captured the leopard and took it to a rescue centre. It isn’t surprising that the IWMB had to sedate the animal, considering it was scared and aggravated during the chase. Three people, including two staffers, were also hurt during the episode.

According to the wildlife board, the leopard was closely monitored by experts during its stay in the forthcoming days and it was ascertained that it had come to the Defence Housing Society (DHA) in the capital city from the Kahuta forests, nearly six kilometres from the posh locality.

The IWMB stated that contrary to initial suspicions, the leopard was not a pet. Subsequently, after more than two weeks, it was released into its natural habitat.

“The leopard was quite agitated and reacting. There was a risk that the feline will hurt itself and we lacked the expertise to handle and care for the wild animal. It was best to release it back into its habitat,” a Dawn report quoted Vaqar Zakaria, the acting chairman of IWMB, as saying.

The report also said that the IWMB was checking up on the feline, adding that it was in good health.

Deeaitchay — the name the leopard was given — is among those few fortunate animals in Pakistan who have safely made it back to their habitat. In other similar situations, such wild animals — especially felines because Pakistanis are strangely obsessed with them — are often either killed by the locals or packed up and sent to zoos as captives.

Human-wildlife conflict

The phenomenon — of leopards entering residential areas — as conservator Mahar and several other experts put it, is called human-wildlife conflict.

“Years ago, when forests were still intact and cities had not yet turned into urban centres, humans and animals used to live together in harmony,” Mahar told Dawn.com.

“This was called co-existence. But today, thanks to rapid urbanisation, this concept is not seen anywhere in sight. Today, there is only conflict,” he said.

World Wildlife Fund-Pakistan’s (WWF-P) senior manager Hamera Aisha elaborates on this conflict in detail. Human-wildlife conflict has emerged as a significant challenge in the country, particularly when you talk about wild cats.

Common leopards — scientifically called Panthera pardus — are critically endangered across the world and their population in Pakistan ranges between 2,000 and 3,000. According to WWF, these wild cats, being apex predators, play a key role in maintaining the health of the ecosystem.

“The common leopard often encounters humans as they inhabit areas close to human settlements. This proximity leads to conflicts, as leopards may attack livestock and occasionally humans, resulting in injuries or fatalities,” she explained.

Aisha highlighted that the problem was driven by habitat destruction, which forced leopards to venture further into human territory in search of food.

It is very simple. Imagine you have been living in a house for years but then one day, some strange-looking creatures raze down your home and build a lavish building atop it. Relatable? That is exactly what happened with wild animals.

“You can’t blame the leopard for trespassing into residential areas. This was his home. And we snatched it from him,” said Mahar.

Urban sprawl

According to Global Forest Watch, an open-source web initiative of the World Resources Institute that monitors global forests in near real-time, from 2001 to 2021, Pakistan lost 4.6 per cent of its tree cover owing to deforestation.

The data showed that in Islamabad alone, nearly eight hectares of tree cover was lost between 2001 and 2021 due to several factors, the key being deforestation.

The statistics indicate how rapid urbanisation is eating up forests and habitats of living species across the country, particularly the capital.

Environmentalist Syed Hasnain Raza told Dawn.com that the urban sprawl in Islamabad is particularly concerning because the Margalla Hills are the foothill of the Himalayas and house animals of various species, such as leopards and black bears.

“These forests go all the way up to Ayubia, Nathia Gali and Azad Jammu Kashmir. This land also gives the animals residing here space to move and hunt,” he said. “However, in the last few years, the natural habitat of these animals has been scattered due to posh housing societies sprouting in this region.”

Raza recalled that until a decade ago, it used to take him merely minutes to cross the Bara Kahu Bypass. “But now, this time has massively increased as numerous hotels and housing societies have been built around the area.”

This, the environmentalist reiterated, has broken down the homes of the wildlife in the Margalla Hills and forced the animals to keep moving in the hunt for food. “Hence, when they come across a village, they see easy prey in the shape of livestock and the rest is history.”

It was, therefore, no surprise to Raza that Deeaitchay managed to enter DHA (oh the irony). “You see leopards are very elusive creatures and walking a distance of 10 to 12 kilometres is not really a big deal for them.”

This incident might be isolated in Islamabad, considering the hullaballoo it created, but in areas up north, such instances are common. They either go unreported or result in the death of a hungry cat in search of food. And if the wild animal is a female with cubs nearby, her little ones are henceforth destined to an enslaved life.

Illegal wildlife trade

Illegal wildlife trade in Pakistan has been thriving for decades, given that the market for unique and endangered animals — especially wild cats — is ripe.

Raza says a leopard cub is sold for at least Rs1 million in the black market. And there are almost two times more buyers in the market as compared to sellers. Conservator Mahar calls this “Pakistan’s obsession with wildcats”.

He says this craze has been prevalent across the world for aeons. “Taming and killing lions has been a sign of bravery for years. Back in the Middle Ages, humans would battle with these big cats in packed rings. It was a show no one would miss.”

Naturally, this obsession crept into Pakistan as well, some two decades ago. Big cats were not just found in circuses and combat zones, but also in political arenas. There have been several instances where chained lions and tigers were brought to political rallies, especially in Punjab.

“Today, Punjab has become a hub of wild cats with more than 2,000 felines. The situation is such that lion cubs are being gifted on birthdays and anniversaries,” Mahar told Dawn.com.

If you go on TikTok, you will very well understand what the conservator means. The social media platform has hundreds and thousands of videos showing Pakistani men and women petting huge lions and tigers that have been incarcerated inside cement walls and man-made backyards.

The reason behind this, Mahar explains, is the lack of laws in the country regarding the possession of wild cats.

Pakistan allows the import of exotic animals under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or CITES. It says: “Whenever an animal of wild origin crosses international borders, some rules and regulations are required to be observed.”

But once the animal enters the country, laws of the state need to be followed and Pakistan has none when it comes to the possession of wild cats.

So, while an unabated influx of wild cats was underway in the country all these years, there was no check on their possession, which is why their population rapidly increased over the years.

Although the government has recently taken steps to curb this illegal trade — including the ban on the import of exotic animals — experts say the damage has already been done. What is worse is that Pakistan lacks the capacities and facilities for the proper care of rescued and confiscated wildlife species.

According to WWF-P’s Aisha, when an exotic animal is imported, a permit is issued to the importer.

“The importers are required to maintain mortality data, mandatory animal tagging, stock records and availability of vets. But this data is usually incomplete or unavailable because of limited capacity, irrelevant expertise and training of provincial and territorial wildlife department as well as at the level of private farms housing exotic species,” she said.

What needs to be done

First, Pakistan needs to draft and enact legislation related to the possession of wild cats. “We need to curb the import of wild cats. And certain regulations need to be introduced for people who already have such exotic animals,” says conservator Mahar.

Secondly, Pakistan needs to protect the habitat of wild animals. The government needs to create space for the climate in its development projects, whether it concerns constructing roads or building housing societies.

According to climate scientist and researcher Dr Ibrarul Hasan Akhtar, one way to do this is by introducing protected areas on a sustainable basis where wildlife remains secure without any outward intervention. He told Dawn.com that interventions in nature do not just directly impact animals, but also humans.

“Deforestation and environmental defragmentation enhance the Earth’s radiation,” he said. “To put it in simple words, when you cut down forests and replace them with concrete, it results in erratic temperature — heatwaves. And Pakistan is already a victim to these volatile weather patterns.”

On the other hand, regarding human-wildlife conflict, environmentalist Raza believes there are better ways to deal with such situations, especially after what Deeaitchay had to go through.

He has a small guide for what people should do if a wild animal enters residential areas.

  • Don’t panic. Call Rescue 1122 or the respective wildlife department.
  • Don’t shout, go near or film the animal.
  • Try to blind the animal through a cloth and trap him in a blanket or cage.
  • Don’t fire gunshots near the animal, instead use an alarm to scare it away.
  • If you’re in a village, keep the livestock indoors at night.

There is one more piece of advice for people who possess exotic animals or wish to do so: Have some heart.

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