In 2004, for the first time in history, the elusive snow leopard was filmed hunting a Markhor on the near vertical cliffs of Chitral in the BBC’s Planet Earth series. The response the BBC got over the footage of the snow leopard stalking and then chasing its prey on the craggy cliffs of Tushi Gol National Park was overwhelming.
Snow leopards are solitary and secretive by nature and, therefore, scarcely seen in the wild. They are also an endangered species — they have been classified as “most endangered” by the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of which Pakistan is a signatory. It is estimated that around 3,500 to 7,000 wild snow leopards remain in the mountain regions of central Asia, including the high mountain ranges of Pakistan. In addition, there are between 600 and 700 snow leopards in zoos around the world.
Amongst them is Pakistan’s only snow leopard in captivity, currently being kept in a birdcage in Lalazar Wildlife Park in the Nathia Gali hill resort. It is not a small cage like a birdcage; it literally is a birdcage that was hurriedly readied for the snow leopard when it first arrived in Lalazar around three years ago. It snows heavily in Nathia Gali during the winters and while snow leopards can certainly withstand the cold, given their thick fur, the narrow path up to Lalazar becomes buried under 10 feet of snow. Hence the snow leopard is shifted to Abbotabad in the winter where it is housed in an even smaller cage.
So how did this rare and majestic animal end up in a birdcage? Around three years ago, Shahbaz Sharif’s eldest son, Hamza Sharif, allegedly acquired a small snow leopard cub from a source in Central Asia illegally (the CITES agreement bans the trade of endangered animals or their body parts). Hamza Sharif kept the cub in his house built atop a hill in Doonga Gali, and the baby snow leopard was reportedly well fed and cared for in the six months that he was there. Then WWF-Pakistan learnt about this endangered animal being kept in illegal captivity and approached Hamza Sharif, convincing him to hand the animal over to a local zoo without any publicity.
This was done and the male snow leopard ended up in Lalazar Wildlife Park, which already housed a pair of male and female common leopards in a nearby purpose-built open enclosure ringed by a metal fence. “At first we wanted to put the male snow leopard in that enclosure, which is quite spacious, but he can jump almost 20 feet high so he could have escaped. We had no other cage for him so we put him in here”, explained Mohd. Riaz, the Deputy Ranger at Lalazar Wildlife Park. The cage, which is enclosed completely with metal fencing, was originally designed to house pheasants.
On weekends, over ten thousand people climb up the narrow trail to Lalazar, paying Rs10 per person to have a close look at the snow leopard, the park’s biggest attraction. The park officials have named him “Sundar”. “The biggest joke is that they have put this beautiful animal in a birdcage” said a father of three, who had brought his children to see the snow leopard. The children were disappointed — the snow leopard was hiding in his shed and refusing to come out. It was a warm afternoon and the three-year old snow leopard was lying listlessly in the small woodshed covered with a corrugated iron sheet inside the birdcage. He was barely moving, occasionally flipping his long tail to swat away flies.
In the wild, snow leopards live on the edges of cliff so that makes their long tails as important as their wide paws. They certainly have the strength to leap as high as 20 feet but this poor snow leopard looked just miserable. “He looks much weaker than when I saw him last year”, said a young visitor, a college student who had come back to Nathia Gali for his summer vacations.
The snow leopard is also injured — in June he cut himself while jumping onto the corrugated iron sheet on his shed and needed medical attention. “He received around six stitches but he is fine now”, explained the Deputy Ranger who works for Khyber Pukhtunkwa’s Provincial Wildlife Department. “And we feed him well, around five kilos of chicken every day”.
Earlier, at the WWF office in Ayubia National Park, a local working for the organisation had spoken on the condition of anonymity: “They are barely feeding the snow leopard and he is getting weaker by the day; now he is also injured. Although they get so many visitors and are making money from sales, they are not spending the money on the snow leopard”.
Another higher level WWF official stated over the phone, again on the condition of anonymity: “We think perhaps the snow leopard was better off with Hamza Sharif — at least he was well fed and looked after properly”.
It has been almost three years since the snow leopard was handed over to the Wildlife Department and the fact remains that they have done nothing to improve its living conditions.
“We are doing our best with the available resources. We acquired the snow leopard incidentally and we had not planned for its arrival”, explained Arif Orakzai, the Divisional Forest Officer Wildlife in charge of Abbotabad District. In zoos abroad, the snow leopard is often the star exhibit and much funding is spent on their enclosures complete with waterfalls and shaded lounging areas.
While Lalazar Wildlife Park obviously does not have access to such lavish funding, much more can be done to make this snow leopard’s life more comfortable. “We have proposed a proper enclosure, costing around one million rupees to be constructed in Lalazar, which has to be approved and is in the pipeline. Hopefully, work will start on it next year in May”, pointed out Orakzai.
According to the documentary filmmaker Nisar Malik, who helped film the snow leopard segment on the Planet Earth series and has already donated green screens for shading the animal enclosures in Lalazar, “We should get the wildlife and zoo authorities to accept that the feeding and care should be much better regulated and that we (the masses) could help with funding and support. We can create a “Friends of the Leopards” and have organisations like the Snow Leopard Trust (in the UK) and the Snow Leopard Foundation (in Pakistan) take active responsibility. Keeping a wild animal in a cage or enclosure is sometimes necessary to protect it, but it does not give us the right to treat it badly".
Any habitat we create for the snow leopard cannot, of course, replicate the stunning terrain of their mountainous homes, as depicted by the Planet Earth series. Those steep cliffs and high rocky outcrops can never be recreated, but at least we can give the snow leopard a decent enclosure and provide him with proper care and dignity to live out the rest of his life in captivity.
(To donate to “Friends of the Leopards” please contact firstname.lastname@example.org)