Thursday, 5 July 2018

Journey to the Leopard land: Life in Kathmandu valley

Yatra chituwa bhumi ko: kathmandu upatyaka ko jiwan

यात्रा चितुवा भुमिको: काठमाण्डौ उपत्यकाको जीवन

I work at Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal (CMDN), a conservation genetics lab in Nepal, as bioinformatics specialist since 2015. I have been involved in research works on Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris) at CMDN since then. Through this research, I got introduced into the world of conservation genetics specializing my skills in population genetics through various computational tools mainly STRUCTURE software. This exposure helped me gain the knowledge about how powerful tools like population genetics can be used to study ecology of an apex predator across a landscape they range. Bengal tigers are found across Terai Arc Landscape (TAL) in southern plains of Nepal, where their populations are fragmented mainly into three geographical divisions by various anthropogenic features. The landscape genetics study of the tigers across TAL clearly revealed that these populations have three main genetic subdivisions and a moderate level of gene flow affected by habitat fragmentation. CMDN also collaborates with NGOs, INGOs and researchers from national and international academic institutions to study population genetics of snow leopard (Panthera uncia). Through these involvements, I have got the chance to review various ways of studying these charismatic big cats that play a vital role in their respective ecosystems using tools of molecular ecology.

Big cats have always fascinated me since my childhood. Specifically, the leopard (Panthera pardus; in nepali: Chituwa, चितुवा) has had an important impact from earlier part of my life. I grew up in Kathmandu hearing news about leopard encounters just about 5km distance away from my house. These incidents I believe have left a deep impact in my mind. Now that I am into wildlife research, I started realizing that these particular cats, unlike its two congeneric cousins (tiger and snow leopard), are not given the same priority although they play an equally important role in their ecosystem. Big cats across the globe are being increasingly threatened due to various human activities, and it is our duty to help secure their future for the sake of greater ecosystem health. Being on top of the food chain, big cats help to keep numbers of herbivores in check and thus regulates their population, which in turn will affect the sound distribution of flora in the forests. They are an excellent example of ecosystem engineers. Thus, every big cat is equally important and worth the protection for the benefit of whole ecosystem including all flora and fauna within it.

I realized that I needed to do something for these neglected big cats (leopards) that calls my hometown its home too since ages and generations. I started hiking in the forests of surrounding hills in Kathmandu valley. These hikes played huge role to grow my deep passion towards leopards. It helped me train my skills of tracking various signs that these elusive cats left in their territory. I still remember that moment when I saw my first ever pugmark of a leopard in a small forest patch just about 1 km away from nearest human settlement in the hills of Kathmandu. My enthusiasm and curiosity increased that led me find many more interesting signs of leopards around the valley. I started taking notes and recording these data which helped me develop my field biology skills unknowingly. Conclusively, all of these were helping me to understand leopards better than any written materials would have had, although I regularly and unreservedly refer to various books and literatures for acquiring knowledge about their ecology, behavior and evolutionary enigmas. They are one masterpiece creation of nature that is currently under threat. They need us and it is our duty to secure their future not just for them, but for the mountains that depend upon them.

My boss, Dr Dibesh Karmacharya, came up with an idea of developing a molecular tool that can identify as well as differentiate multiple felid species genetically in single assay. I started working in silico on reference genome sequences of wild felids and soon enough designed a molecular assay to identify and differentiate multiple species of felids using PCR technique. Experiments were carried out to validate these assays in the lab. Along this effort, I started putting up a proposal for Rufford Small Grant in order to test these tools on actual field collected non-invasive genetic samples (scats/poops) and study the wild felids around Kathmandu valley. This would also help me in my passion driven research endeavor to study leopards. Thankfully, the Rufford Foundation generously decided to fund us in our effort to develop such tool and study the wild felids around Kathmandu valley, which would aid most importantly in the field of leopard conservation. I am immensely thankful to the Rufford Foundation for providing such a great source of encouragement. My nice colleagues and good friends played huge role in supporting me throughout this path to help me secure this grant that will now allow me to achieve my goal. By studying these cats in the mountains I have hiked, breathed and lived, I hope to understand about their amazing secretiveness and elusiveness but mainly their evolutionary antiquity that has shaped them into such a magnificent beast ever appeared on the planet.

I fully dedicate this project to these big cats of Kathmandu valley. My journey that started long time ago just attained a kick-start height in the stepping-stone. And I look forward to continue explore the surmounting nature that beholds these enigmatic wild cats and many other walks of life. To the leopard, for the Chituwa. 

Jai Chituwa!


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