KARACHI, July 30: A female leopard, reportedly the first animal to ever be gifted to the city’s Safari Park by the government of the NWFP, is being kept in conditions that are insufficient for her needs and the park administration has made no evident effort to replicate the animal’s natural habitat, Dawn has learnt.

The leopard also lacks the four long canines that are distinctive characteristics of this species, and the park administration does not appear to know how or when the teeth were lost or extracted.

Captured three years ago near Nathiagali in the densely-wooded area of the Galiyat of Murree and the NWFP, the leopard was gifted to the city district government of Karachi by the NWFP wildlife department in 2006. A member of the Pathera pardus or common leopard family, the big cat’s natural habitat constitutes the forests and water courses of the north. The one at the Safari Park, however, is being kept in a cage that was constructed to house turkeys and lacks trees, water bodies or even sufficient space for exercise.

Brought to Karachi when Dr Kazim Hussain – who now works at the Karachi Zoo – was heading the Safari Park, the leopard is reportedly fed two live chickens a day and is currently awaiting being shifted to the Karachi Zoological Gardens.

The animal has proved a major attraction for visitors to the public park, although many of them mistakenly refer to it as a cheetah. Despite the leopard’s importance as a crowd-puller, however, the current Safari Park administration has no clue about its age or how it came to lose its pointed canines. This raises serious questions about the expertise of the staff responsible for the care of over 600 animals.

Upon being contacted by Dawn the district officer of the Safari Park, Shariq Ilyas, said that he received no records concerning the animal when he took over charge from Dr Hussain a few months ago. “There are conflicting stories about the big cat’s capture from the wild and how it was brought to Karachi,” he commented. “I received her the way she is at the moment and believe that she lost her teeth during the operation conducted to capture her, since she posed a serious threat to human life and had killed some villagers.”

‘Canines appear to have been removed’

When Dr Hussain did not respond to repeated telephone calls, this reporter contacted Dr Mumtaz Malik, the senior chief conservator of the NWFP Wildlife Department. He maintained that the leopard gifted to the Safari Park had not been a killer. “This is not the same leopard,” he stated. “The killer leopard that claimed the lives of six women was hunted down and killed, and its body was later preserved and kept in the Nathiagali museum. The female leopard gifted to Karachi upon the request of the CDGK was captured injured from the Galiyat. Her canine teeth were completely intact, though they were slightly damaged.”

Dr Malik refused to believe that the animal at the Safari Park lacked its canines until he was sent photographic proof. His response was that of an absolute shock: “This is simply unbelievable,” he said, “its canines appear to have been removed, although it looks healthy otherwise.”

Saying that he was unsure of the animal’s age but that it may be around three and a half years old, Dr Malik explained that common leopards were found in the conifer forests spread across FATA, Kaghan, Swat, the Murree and Margalla hills, and the Salt Range of the Punjab. “Their population numbers had dwindled earlier, but the strict enforcement of regulations introduced in the 1980s led to a subsequent increase,” he told Dawn. “There is still no exact data on the strength of their population but information collected from people of the area leads us to believe that the species is not endangered any longer.”

According to Dr Malik, leopards are not normally man-eaters but can become so if their natural prey or habitat becomes unavailable or inaccessible. “Injuries that can deprive predators of their ability to hunt their natural prey can force them to target humans to avoid starvation,” he said, adding that the post-mortem of the killer leopard caught in the Galiyat revealed that it had lost some teeth. “This species is different from snow leopards, which are found at higher elevations,” he pointed out. “Given that tigers, lions and cheetahs have long since been extinct in Pakistan, the common leopard and the snow leopard become highly important from the conservation point of view.”

‘Essential to replicate natural habitat’

According to information available on the Internet, leopards have 32 teeth of which four are the distinctively long and pointed canines. With excellent hearing, good eyesight and retractable claws, they hunt and eat mainly at night. Leopards are not only strong swimmers but are also the strongest of the big cats, and have been known to reach 21 years of age in captivity. Along with all reptiles and wild mammals, leopards are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), to which Pakistan is a signatory.

In context of the conditions to be provided for leopards in captivity, the former director of the Karachi Zoological Gardens, Dr A.A. Qureshi, said that is it essential that they be kept as close as possible to their natural habitat. “A leopard sleeps on trees,” he pointed out. “Disability, unnatural conditions and loneliness can cause the premature death of the animal at the Safari Park. She seems to be under extreme pressure, which has made her very aggressive.”