Problem in wildlife conservation in Nepal - case of Leopard conflicts
Nepal has rich biodiversity, which have resulted in the continuous attention of conservation initiatives. My concern again is on big cats that have been prowling the habitat located across different topographical regions of Nepal. The most celebrated, Snow leopards, exists in the northern belt of Himalayan mountainous regions, they have received much of attentions by different organizations dedicated to the species conservation such as Snow Leopard Conservancy, Snow Leopard Trust and other conservation organizations such as well know WWF. Similarly, in the southern plains, Tigers and leopards co-exist. Today’s plight in the challenges the world is facing in the Tiger conservation, they have too received huge supports by different national level and global level programs and conservation measures. Nepal has celebrated 3 years of Zero-poaching in case of Tigers since 2011, and a positive trend in the population results are coming out as of the results. Elsewhere in the mid-hilly and lower mountainous belts, the dominating cats are Leopards. Leopards being the most prosecuted of all big cats worldwide, the situation is not so different here in Nepal too.
Leopards are known as the most adaptable of all big cats, they have been co-existing along with Lions and Tigers since millions of years, and today they are adapting to survive even in the urban areas. Such reports have been coming up in media from parts of India, Africa too and in Nepal too. The problem that Tigers faced due to increasing encroachment of their habitat in the last century which resulted in the extermination extinction of at least 3 tiger subspecies, and one subspecies not recorded in the wild for more than 10 years, and present remaining tigers in high risk of getting extinct have also hugely affected most of other wild faunas. Leopards too are moving into human settlements due to habitat depletion and prey base decline. And when a wild cat predator comes into the human domain, conflict does start to occur, in either an animal attacking people or people attacking an animal. This has resulted in the misunderstanding among people that leopards are their prime enemy and that they should not tolerate their presence.
In Nepal, tigers and snow leopards are fully protected species declared by Department of National Park and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), Government of Nepal. However, common leopards thought to be as common as they are called or for some other reasons, have not got the same protection as their former two popular cousins. It is illegal to kill or poach any leopards within the protected areas, which indirectly is pointing out that they are not a protected species outside of protected areas. Basically, what problems this misleading information creates is that people would think that they aren't endangered species, so they are not strictly protected as tigers and snow leopards. We don’t know when the common leopards become uncommon or have they already started becoming so? But we do know that an attention has not been given properly to this beautiful spotted cat. Leopards are one of most conflict-cases cats in Nepal, one of the reasons being already mentioned, highly adaptable. People do fear a predator which can harm them, kill their cattles, pets, children etc. and bring nightmares among locals. So most conflict situations results in the prosecution of the big cat. The government has allocated compensation to the casualties, lost cattle, but for some reason, the prosecution problem is still not getting resolved. Is it because the government’s declarations being not implemented real in practice or is there some other issues blocking this solution? Well, there could be many reasons, but however, one main thing that’s lacking the most is the awareness.
Awareness is what wildlife conservation has to be really about. When conservation goes hand in hand with the local people, it has the highest chances of being successful. Similarly, the case with leopards and most of other animals conflict cases, it’s the awareness. When people are made aware about the importance of wildlife into the ecosystem of earth, they realize what is best to do. A term used in conservation biology called ‘key-stone species’ applies most often to top-carnivores, and hence the big cats are the protector of our ecosystem. If we protect them, we are protecting our environment where we need to survive healthily. Leopards as being the top-predators in the mid-hilly regions need not fear of tigers as in southern Terai regions. But why are they still venturing into our settlements? Most probably, a predator would search for its food in order to survive. The prey-base in their territories are declining due to ever increasing human disturbances such as cattle grazing, deforestation, dependent on forests as source of firewood, and nevertheless the greed nature of involving into the business of poaching of wild animals. The place that we are calling as ours actually belonged to them just up to maybe not-too-distant past. They have already lost huge areas of their historical ranges, and now they are facing the shortage of their prey animals. So, they are forced to enter our settlements which give rises to conflict. One of very depressing situations is in Kathmandu, the capital city itself. Increasing immigration have resulted in faster urbanization rate, and the habitat of wildlife fragmented, depleted, encroached as a result. Not just this, though being the most developed regions of the country in terms of infrastructure, opportunities, good-quality educational institutions, the condition of awareness is no better than any other rural areas where people are deprived of these developmental facilities. When a leopard comes into the vicinity, people go after it crazily just as a crazy bunch of illiterates. The mistake is not from the people here, but there seems to be the huge lack in proper awareness. And another sad thing is that these issues are highlighted mostly only when the conflict itself occurs, they don’t remain in the concern of any concerned authorities or bodies to continuously spread the awareness for if any other conflicts ever arises in the future.
The basic science, the basic animal behaviors, the basic animal habits which could be educated very simply in a series of awareness programs to public and mostly school children are lacking. Leopards are solitary cats. Only females who has cubs would remain with them for about a year or so until their cubs become able to fend for themselves, and after which mothers would drive them off. They have very strict boundaries of their territories, so young big cats curiously venture into human domains seeing the chances of easy prey such as stray dogs, cats, chickens, etc. These cats maybe very nervous and afraid of humans, they might not incur any harm or threats to our lives and they are very good at being invisible. Yet still when people do realize its presence, and the worst thing when they do see it, most likely the young cat is going to be chased basically to be killed. Although, sometimes the animals are captured safely, but they end up getting to the zoo. Well, this isn't a solution. A proper attention has not come here even into the minds of those wildlife authorities who should understand about the nature of these cats and take some initiatives to arrange a relocation of such wandering young cats. A leopard that was killed by police after it attacked a person, basically because it got threatened by mass of people running and shouting after it just early this year in Kapan area looked very young. He/she really seemed to be a young innocent cat just trying to start its new life as described above, and then it just couldn't even make it. People’s safety was the first priority, but why was there the lack of proper equipment to tranquilize it, and why were people making lots of noise which would make the cat very nervous? For the former, it could be a lack of budget or negligence, but for the latter, it’s a complete lack of awareness. Those educated people living in the capital city of the country are showing their lack of common sense, just let alone the similar scenarios in the rest of parts of Nepal.
Another possibility of leopard venturing into our settlements could be that the leopard was old aged. Leopards defend their territories from any other leopards. Males will have larger area compared to females, often overlapping with couple of females, and the size of their territory depends mostly on the availability of the prey-base in the region. Conflict due to territories also occur among them, this has to occur, its nature. Young and strong enough to take over, a new leopards may drive off an older one most often inflicting serious injuries on them. These fights are often very vicious, even resulting in death sometimes. The loosing and injured leopard can’t hunt efficiently, and thus they need to go for some easier prey in order to survive. These cats in their search for easier prey might finally end up in our settlements where they get the chances of catching domestic animals. Conflicts will come sooner or later, though weak and injured, they could be still deadly to any humans who bare handedly tries to fight it. The unfortunate cats are either prosecuted, shot or if lucky taken safely to the zoo.
Yet there could be many other possibilities why leopards venture out into our settlements, however we should also not forget that the base reasons for all these causes are our improper acts. A proper awareness is hugely required to conserve these magnificent creature earth has ever given rise to. The issue doesn’t just relate to the common leopards which doesn’t have the enough protection, but to another very close relative of Panthera cats, the clouded leopards. They are one of the most cryptic species of cat. Due to fragmentation of dense forests, these cats are facing danger of getting extinct. And unlike leopards, clouded leopards are the protected species and considered endangered in Nepal and vulnerable worldwide, they are distributed in south and south-east Asia. Very few reports of their venturing into human settlements comes up in the news, but there are no any strong data on how many of them are there. Or are they just already extinct or close to extinction? Have we totally neglected a most endangered species while focusing on tigers and snow leopards? There could be very few of them, no one knows how many, and reports of their pelt and body parts seizure coming up in the media makes us worry about the species even more. People know very less about these clouded leopards which are locally called Dhwanse chituwa, lesser than how much people know of common leopards. Nepal is the last of its range in the western most area, and there is very few anecdotal data and some photographic evidences of its occurrence in some remote protected areas, no idea if they are even present in unprotected areas of the country. Attention to every precious species that are in grave danger of extinction should be prioritized, today clouded leopards need as enough attention as common leopards. And these two cats co-exist in the mid-hilly regions of Nepal. Being the smallest big cat, they should receive equal conservation attention as the biggest big cat, the tigers.
Cats are hyper carnivorous among the Carnivora order. They stalk, ambush, pounce their preys with their claws which retract and protract in will, and the sharp canines that serves in the killing throat-bite. They predate on the weakest animal, eliminating weaker genes, controls the population of herbivores, thus giving green plants the time to sprout. Overall, helps in maintaining the balance in ecosystem in landscape level. These key-stone species should be protected and conserved and never harmed, if we are to breathe a clean air in a clean environment made possible by preserving the green forests where these wildcats live and survive. Proper education, awareness, attention should be prioritized to secure their future in order to secure our own future. Conserve the wildlife of the planet, we have only one of it. Jai Bagh !