Sunday, 5 November 2017

Canine distemper virus or Carnivore distemper virus? A case of fatal infection in Amur leopard in Russian wilderness

Canine distemper virus (CDV) infection in Amur leopard (Panthera pardus)

A camera-trap image of an Amur leopard in the Russian wilderness.
Photo source:
A first case of fatal CDV infection in a wild Amur leopard (subspecies, Panthera pardus orientalis) was diagnosed based on detection of the viral DNA sequences in brain tissue of the deceased leopard. The case was diagnosed in a female leopard of approximately 2 yr old in the Russian territory of Primorskii Krai during May 2015. It was found close to a road that runs through the Land of the Leopard National Park in Khasanskii district. Upon initial approach, the leopard was showing a lack of fear toward people and vehicles, and quite unconcerned about its surroundings. It was then tranquilized and taken to Alekseevka PRNCO “Tiger Center” for medical attention. Despite continuous medical care and support for more than 2 weeks, its conditions kept on deteriorating and ultimately euthanasia was performed for ethical motive.

A team of scientists at Wildlife Conservation Society, Cornell University and other organizations from Russia, USA and UK jointly led a scientific investigation on the case. The investigation detected clinical symptoms and signs in the brain tissue of the deceased animal which was consistent with advanced neurologic disorder associated with CDV infection. A phylogenetic analysis was performed to study inter-relationship between the leopard CDV strain and those from other regions, which showed that the CDV strain from leopard fell within Arctic-like clade, which also included those from Amur tigers (Panthera tigris altaica) in the Russian Far East and Baikal seals (Phoca sibirica) from Lake Baikal in the southern Siberia.

Phylogenetic tree showing CDV strain from Amur leopard (in arrow) is closely related to Arctic-like clade
that also include strains from Amur tigers and Baikal seals.
Image source: Sulikhan & Gilbert et al. 2017.

Typically, the symptoms of CDV infection in dogs include upper respiratory disease with or without systemic signs such as pyrexia, dermatitis, hyperkeratosis or enteritis. Neurologic signs often follow but are not usually present in all cases. In contrast, the present case in leopard exhibited severe neurologic disease with no any symptoms associated to respiratory or systemic disease. The genetic amplicons of the virus were detected only in brain tissue but not in lung tissue. Scientists thus warrant investigation on pathogenesis of CDV in wild felids having potential important epidemiologic implications.

Amur leopards are the most critically endangered subspecies of leopard, with approximately 60 to 80 individuals left in the wild. CDV infections are normally short-lasting and require spillover quite often to maintain viable circulation in a population. The leopard population being too small, the scientists suggest that the spillover could be occurring from other domestic or wild carnivores such as dogs, raccoon dogs (Nyctereutes procyonoides), sable (Martes zibellina) and Asian badgers (Meles leucurus) that are more abundant in Primorskii Krai.

The research article has been published on August 25th, 2017 in the online issue of Journal of Wildlife Diseases, Vol. 54, No. 1, January 2018.

If you haven't already watched this wonderful photo story from Emmanuel Rondeau

Living with Leopards


Sunday, 27 August 2017

Hide and seek with the Mountain Ghost: Snow leopard

Following Mountain Ghost's Trail

An expedition to collect non-invasive samples of wild yaks (Bos mutus) and domestic yaks (Bos grunniens) for genetics study took us to the remote trans-Himalayas of upper Mustang. Yaks are high-altitude bovids specialized on vegetation growing only at high elevation meadows in the Tibetan Plateau. To meet our research motives, we ventured through challenging terrains, reaching to about 5,200 meters above sea level. The barren rocky cliffs, deep river valleys, steep and rolling terrains and alpine steppes in the trans-Himalayas were our home for 16 days.

We travelled through treacherous paths (I often found no paths at all). But the breath-taking and pristine landscapes made us forget all the hardships. No doubt, the ghosts of the mountains prowl in wake of dusk and dawn amidst the narrow gorges and the rocky terrains. As mythical as the Yeti, the snow leopards (Panthera uncia) are very difficult to see in their natural habitat as they are perfectly camouflaged in the mountain landscape, hence their nickname "The Mountain Ghost". Yet the presence of these magnificent cats could be felt through the signatures they left behind in form of scats, scrapes, and pugmarks. Reaching close to these signs in the intriguing terrains pose unavoidable challenges and difficulties. My regular experiences of tracking leopard (Panthera pardus) signs in the hills of Kathmandu have always been interesting. The diverse information on the “God's Pet” brought to my notice, by Naresh Kusi (my friend, brother & colleague), during our shared times always added to my fascination. Snow leopards are not much different from leopards, their mid-hill cousin. But the terrains they roam are stunning. I was seeing the hard and rocky surfaces, steep slopes, creepy and rough vegetation for the first time ever in my life and I was filled with joy and marvel to find myself amidst such a heart-warming landscape.

We walked up and down the cliffs but also had some relaxing moments in the flat Plateaus of the alpine steppes. But the 'Queen of the Himalayas' usually prefers to roam through the challenging precipices. Having come up all the way to such a pristine land, we could not let go the chances of revealing some tracks of the 'Phantom'. We endured the mountain spirit and ventured through the ghost's highway. Believe me; it was extremely adrenaline-rushing. I felt like giving up so many times.

Most of the signs we came across (scats in general) were old. We did find a couple of scrapes which gave us pleasant feeling to realize that the 'Ghost' was silently watching us from somewhere nearby. As days passed, we started descending towards a river valley traversing through gigantic cliffs and awe-inspiring gorges.

The second last camp set on the bank of Chodzong khola (river) in Chodzong valley had something in store for me. The moist soil (clay/sand) by the river bank presented a perfect place to look for pugmarks. Here Naresh dai and I chose different areas to explore; he climbed through an almost 75° slope to reach a table like depression among the mighty cliffs while I, having given up the seemingly dangerous attempt midway, roamed along the river banks. Like a stalking cat, I scanned through every crevice along the numerous cliff bases. Bingo! At the end of the soft sandy river bank my treasure hunt met its desired fate. A long reaching track of the snow leopard struck my eyes. I almost burst with tears of happiness to have finally located perfect pugmarks of the charismatic mountain cat. The fact that the animal might have had recently walked through the site, elevated my joy. This exciting moment of standing 'victorious' by the tracks of the mountain ghost carved an ecstatic imprint in my memory, which I will cherish for a long time ahead.


Pugmarks of snow leopard by a river bank:

Scat deposits of snow leopard:

Scrape markings of snow leopard on its territory:

Remains of kills:

Domestic goat (Capra aegagrus hircus) with bite mark on throat

Skull of a blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) (Nepali: Naur)

Habitat of snow leopard:

Our Horse Team members:
From left: Shakpa, Dhoma & Mhourro


This expedition was led by Naresh Kusi, Researcher at Resources Himalaya Foundation (RHF) and Principal Investigator of Wild Yak Research project, funded by his individual Research Grant provided by The Rufford Foundation, UK. I joined him as project's Co-investigator and genetics/bioinformatics expert  from Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal (CMDN). We were accompanied by Aakash Nath Upraity, Student researcher at University of Oregon. Additionally, our team was supplemented by Ramu dai (cook), Lakpa baje (horse man), and three horses.
Time: July/August 2017.

Special mentions (words of thanks):
Naresh Kusi, Researcher at RHF;
Dibesh Karmacharya, Executive Director at CMDN;
Sulochana Manandhar, Lab Manager at CMDN;
Ajay Narayan Sharma, Senior Research Associate at CMDN;
Jyoti Joshi, Wildlife Program Manager at CMDN;
Bishwo Parakarma Shrestha, Field Manager at CMDN;
And all my colleagues at CMDN.


Thursday, 25 May 2017

Call of the leopard

When the night falls, the phantom calls !

A small greenery cover on fringes of a suburb of Kathmandu valley, surrounded by agricultural farmlands and moderate sub-urban and rural settlements, where there is frequent movements of local people for their daily livelihood activities (agriculture) as well as attended on regular basis by internal & external tourists for recreational purposes like bird watching, hiking, mountain biking etc., is also frequented by an invincible resident, a leopard. The leopard frequently spray marks urine and scratches on trunk of a tall Schima wallichi (Nepali: chilaune) tree, which is the usual behavior of leopards for territory marking and identification. Local people knows about its presence and they hear it calling/growling every night, while few have even sighted in daylights. According to them, the leopard prowls in the cover of darkness to take stray dogs, which has become their urban prey as their natural prey (barking deer, wild boar, monkeys etc.) are believed to be depleting due to habitat encroachment, fragmentation and illegal hunting [SMCRF 2015]. The leopard thrives despite the change in their habitat unlike their food by changing their menu [Athreya et al. 2014]. As scientifically as its known, leopards cannot change its spots, but it does can change its behavior for it is the most adaptable and versatile of all the great cats.

Spatial location of the tree with scratch mark. [Google Earth Pro v7.1.5]
This is the scenario which is very common today in most of the leopards' global range around the globe, so are the cases in many parts of Nepal too. The coexistence only remains to be one until there is, but not limited to, a conflict. The dynamics of their behavior is just so dynamic across their range, habitat, regions, areas, and individuals. The same species have made far-west Nepal [Karki & Rawat 2014] and bordering Uttarakhand of India [Sondhi et al. 2016] a most probable global hotspot of human-leopard conflict making lives difficult at both the ends. Yet they are equally proving that they can coexist alongside human settlements as urban as Kathmandu valley which is one of the most fastest urbanizing cities in South Asia [WorldBank 2012].

But its just like a matter of the string where the tension is gradually building up. This is a high time for us to give enough attention towards these charismatic spotted big cat to understand their behavior, their ecology, their situation! Maybe the leopard is calling for sake of their plight being unheard of! Maybe they are trying to signal us through their spiritual power, for they are the part of the forest deity, Ban devi, the goddess of the jungle. The forests are there because they are there.

May the people living with leopards always be bestowed with the eternal blessings of the Ban devi for generations and generations to come as have been since the dawn of the time.

P.S. Coming soon is an artwork expressing spiritual connections of people living with leopards under the blessings of Ban devi!

Cited articles:
Athreya V. et al. (2014). A cat among the dogs: leopard Panthera pardus diet in a human-dominated landscape in western Maharashtra, India. Oryx.
Karki JB & Rawat GS. (2014). Human leopard conflict in Nepal: A case study from Baitadi district of Nepal. DNPWC Special Issue-2071.
Sondhi S, Athreya V. et al. (2016). Human attacks by leopards in Uttarakhand, India: an assessment based on perceptions of affected people and stakeholders. A technical report submitted to the Uttarakhand Forest Department.
SMCRF (2015). Biodiversity survey of Chandragiri Hill, Kathmandu, Nepal. Small Mammals Conservation and Research Fund.
WorldBank (2012). Urban Growth and Spatial Transition in Nepal: An Initial Assessment.



Sunday, 9 April 2017

Dogs for wildlife conservation - CK9

Meet with the CK9 dogs

We, I and Adarsh dai, had a chance to shortly meet Jennifer Hartman and Suzie Marlow from CK9 group, while they were on their way to airport travelling to their next work site after 2 months of work in Nepal’s challenging terrains. A short intro about this group, Conservation Canines (CK9) is a part of Center for Conservation Biology, University of Washington. And they deal with scat detection dogs or sniffer dogs trained to find scats of wild animals in the wild. After finding scats of wild animals, biologist/ecologist/geneticist can study more in detail about the species through DNA extracted off these scats. These dogs are highly trained for the work that they do, such as going out in the wild in completely new and challenging terrains of every sorts all over the world whenever an elusive species need to be studied. And what’s more interesting about them is that these dogs are not any specific pedigree breed dogs, they are all mixed or abandoned strays picked up from shelters in US.

Having been following their facebook page (link) for nearly 4-5 years now when I was studying in Finland, I really liked the kind of work they have been doing for over the past 10 years in the field of wildlife conservation as well as animal welfare. It struck me immediately when I saw their facebook post (about 2 months back in Feb) that two of their team dog members, CK9 Athena and CK9 Skye, are in Nepal for pangolin work. But never had I imagined that I would get to meet them in person on the last day last moment of their work in Nepal, while they were leaving for their flight. Thanks to these wonderful and dedicated people from the Conservation Canines, who are also the dog handlers of these two sniffer dogs. Pangolins are one of the world’s most trafficked wildlife and are in the verge of extinction. And scientists from UW are going to try tracking illegal trade of pangolins by use of molecular genetics tools. They have pioneered similar work in tracking the origin of illegally traded ivory through use of genetics and helped identify two main elephant poaching hotspots (more info). Definitely this is not our last meet, we will meet in the coming days for more works on pangolins. And I am equally excited about their passion of training local dogs in Nepal for similar works in the future. Putting the nose of dogs for such work will not only aid wildlife conservation, but also helps provide a stray or abandoned yet equally capable dog a very healthy, exciting and meaningful life. And no any wildlife or dogs are hurt during the work, which makes this whole process a noninvasive.


CK9 Athena and Skye, with their handlers Jennifer and Suzie.

The CK9 team with Adarsh dai.

Photo sources: Adarsh Man Sherchan.

More links about CK9 and their work:


Saturday, 8 April 2017

Leopards in Chandragiri landscape

Phantom of Kathmandu

Chandragiri landscape is a hilly range covering most of south-western ridge of Kathmandu valley. The hills are preserved by community forestry management, and are full of dense lush green hill forests. This landscape elevates from around 1500m asl to above 2500m asl with varying degree of vegetation types along the altitudinal gradients. It is an important biodiversity area, but not much of it has been studied in detail.

Leopards are largest wild carnivore and on top of the food chain in this landscape. They share their habitat throughout the landscape with humans along villages mostly in fringes and base of the hill range. Barking deer, wild boar, rhesus and assamese macaques could form the main prey base for leopards in this landscape. Stray or feral dogs roaming freely along the human settlements could also form one of the main urban prey options for leopards. Other sympatric carnivores include leopard cat, jungle cat, large indian civet, masked palm civet and golden jackal.

The indirect signs like scats, pugmarks and scratch marks of leopards are observed very often in the jungles of this landscape.  One day it so happened that I even felt a very fresh yet pungent smell of a spray or urine mark of leopard while walking a trail under canopy of the jungle. I felt the leopard could have been very near but never did I see it then. There are cases of leopards in conflict with people in and around the human settlements in the landscape. Settlement areas like Kirtipur, Matatirtha, Pharping, Chalnakhel are some of the regions around this landscape where leopards sneak into, mainly in search of domestic prey such as goats, stray cattle, pet animals and stray dogs.  Since Jan 2016 to Feb 2017, two leopards have been caught at two different occasions from local houses in Kirtipur and were released elsewhere in natural habitat; one leopard got killed in a man leopard conflict in Matatirtha; while another leopard died of an unidentified cause in Chalnakhel. This makes at least four leopards to have been removed from the area in just about one year time. We don’t know how many leopards still prowl this landscape, but it may not be long that they get to survive many generations to come.



leopard captured after tranquilized in Kirtipur (Jan 2016).
Photo source: himalayan times

leopard rescued after tranquilized by Radha K Gharti, senior 
vet of zoo and kathmandu's professional leopard catcher
(Feb 2017).  Photo source:


Monday, 6 February 2017

Owl festival and the fishing cat encounter !!!

Owl Festival 2017 at Jagadishpur Reservoir Ramsar site

I went to attend Nepal Owl Festival 2017 at Jagadishpur, Kapilvastu (mid-west lowland Nepal) along with my work colleague, Nagendra (Awasthi) dai. We traveled in night bus, and reached the festival site the next morning by 7am. The festival went well with nature and bird watching program early in the morning and followed by various cultural programmes later in the day. The Jagdishhpur reservoir is one huge wetland lake and a ramsar site important for numerous migratory and resident water birds.

During the birding sessions, over 30 species of birds were spotted that included bar-headed goose, bean goose, gray lag goose, asian open-bill, ruddy-shelduck, ferruginous duck to name some by expert birders. During the night, lot of calls of owls was heard. I was also excited about this place that it is a known habitat for fishing cats (Prionailurus viverrinus), they had been recorded (Sagar Dahal et al. 2014) in and around the lake area. Most of the time, I was wondering about their presence around and really wanted to go track their signs.

So, in this 2nd day of the festival after our morning birding session, I insisted Nagendra dai to go and hunt down their tracks in a nearby small shallow pond which was wet and easy to access. As we walked through the edges, a carnivore scat was encountered, which i believe should be of jackal (unsure), I didn't have the feeling of it to be of a felid because its morphology was quite different than my pet cat's feces (which I am much familiar with). As we went by, we spotted small felid pugmarks, it was a joyful moment. We went ahead, and again spotted even more fresh tracks in a pretty wet area of the pond. In this second encounter, you could also tell the path the cat walked through, it clearly looked as if the cat was climbing up the slope into the edge from the shallow area, the claw marks were intact in the tracks. I took photographs and GPS through my mobile device. As soon as we returned to the festival area, I showed it to Yadav (Ghimirey) dai, he confirmed it to be most likely of fishing cat based on habitat and size of the track. This made my day having tracked a fishing cat track. We attended the festival program and enjoyed our rest of the day in the festival area, I volunteered by putting owl stamp to children and adults too. The festival ended well with messages of owl conservation and awareness among the local communities with many other fun-filled local cultural and entertainment activities.

The next day, we were bound to return early morning. We woke up and got ready by 5.30am when we finally started to move towards bus stop. We had some really good friends who helped us in reaching bus stop at time (by waking up early themselves) by dropping us through bike. I and Nagendra dai started walking and almost covered half way to the bus stop when Kaushal (Yadav) dai took us in his bike (double-load). He was riding very slowly, and suddenly we noticed something move, there the guys started to shout out with joyous voices, then Kaushal bro called "fishing cat". It was a blessing moment of our journey I would say. As we were leaving the place, a fishing cat showed it to us, we were able to see it as it ran through the farm-field and into a bush nearby where it disappeared.

As we reached the bus stop, we excitingly informed it to Yadav dai, who was already there. This joyous moment wouldn't have been possible if Yadav dai had not insisted me to come to the festival. My huge thanks to him, and rest of all Friends of Nature team for organizing such a wonderful festival. This sighting was my second live sighting of a wild cat in the wild.

Sagar Dahal et al, SMCRF (2014). Status of Fishing cat in Jagadishpur Reservoir and Ghodaghodi Lake and assessment of threat.



Fig 1: habitat area (shallow pond), where we tracked for signs

Fig 2: pugmark spot 1

Fig 3: pugmark spot 2

Fig 4: pugmarks (claw-marks intact), claws would protract as the cat insist on climbing through slope

Fig 5: slope at edge of the pond, arrows showing tracks with claw-marks

Fig 6: carnivore scat in edge of the pond

Fig 7: Jagadishpur Reservoir

Fig 8: Map showing locations of pugmarks and live sighting of fishing cat (Google Earth Pro image)

Fig 9: Owl face painting was one of the attractions in the festival


Saturday, 21 January 2017

High Mountain Leopards

Leopards of the mountains

There has been a recent spark on records of common leopards (hereafter referred "leopards") and snow leopards at a same camera trap station, which is circling the social and mainstream medias of conservation concern groups and researchers. It all started after bbc published the news which reports leopards and snow leopards captured at same location in Qinghai of China. The concern was obviously about snow leopards having to share their habitat with much stronger and larger leopards. According to them, this would mean the already endangered snow leopards will have to now compete with their larger cousins for space and food, which can probably result in displacement of snow leopard activity from those regions where leopards are roaming. This news came up in the wake of current ongoing snow leopard conference being held in Kathmandu, Nepal. However, the news is not so much of a new thing in the field. The leopards have been recorded at up to altitude of 5200 m above seal level (asl) in the past. They have been camera-trapped by Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC) Nepal in snow leopard habitat in Annapurna region. WWF-Nepal has recorded them in Kanchenjunga region. Non-invasive genetic studies (unpublished) have proved their sympatry in the Himalayas. The recent news have reported similar cases in Manang region. And who knows since how long have they been co-occurring together and its just been into the notice of greater world as the monitoring of much endangered snow leopards are rigorously taking place, whereas leopards have never been accessed in such detail and with much effort. Had leopards' monitoring been given similar priority, their global and local distribution range would have been much different than what it is actually known now, and the phrases such as "leopards are moving higher up" would have never been invented.

It is not a new thing of the present to have two large cats co-existing in the same habitat. Lions and leopards coexist in Africa and Gujarat of India, while similarly, tigers and leopards coexist together in most of present tiger ranges throughout south and south-east Asia. Much recently, tigers are being recorded at higher altitude in Bhutanese Himalayas, where snow leopards occur. And historically, even lions and tigers were known to co-occur together, and this can continue if we drill even more towards prehistoric times when multiple prehistoric super-large sized cats evolved and prowled on this earth together. Cats are very good at maintaining their contacts, they only do it when they want to. Having (larger) leopards in what is known to be snow leopard territory should not be much of a threat to (smaller) snow leopards as this is what nature is bringing upon. There are already lot of human-related threats (poaching, hunting, encroachment etc) against these cats for us to take care of than what the nature is naturally playing.

On the other hand, conservationists should never sound or be biased when it comes to conservation until and unless the threat was really something like "introduced" or "invasive" species cases. If a larger carnivore really threatens the existence of smaller carnivores, what about the lynxes (a small cat, but relatively large in size) that co-share habitat with (larger) snow leopards. Why was it not a threat when much much larger tigers were known to be breeding in snow leopard habitat in Bhutan? I think we should not spend time thinking about this can happen or that can happen, it is all upon nature to decide what has to happen or how it has to happen, rather what we should be thinking about is how can we better protect their ecosystem and let them be just what and how they were and are.

As far as hybridization is concerned, it should not also be much of a concern, because if it does occur, then it occurs, that is also a part of evolution. Hybridization among small cats species is a known scenario, small wild cats of Leopardus genus of the neotropics have been verified to hybridize by genetic studies. In the domestic cat lineage Felis, the hybridization is known and currently occurring events in nature among feral (domestic) cats and wild cats across Europe. In fact, the evolution of cats have itself been shaped by hybridization in the ancient past is what a recent phylogenomic study have proved as.

Hence, if leopards are getting recorded (for first time) in snow leopard habitat, then we should be rather proud that not just one but two big cats prowl this terrain, and hence start acting for their habitat protection and better conservation.