Getting to the core of human and leopard coexistence…

The last few weeks have been about many meetings, presentations and interactions with people here in Nepal, where we live with leopards.  As I mentioned many times I am not Nepali (glaringly obvious by appearance!) and in talks from everyone from professors to tiny children in villages, I openly state I will never have the insights of someone born in this complicated land.  Perhaps, as my life is dedicated to leopard conservation, I can sometimes angle in from the leopard’s point of view but that is different, those are  offerings regarding leopard behaviour and in this challenging coexistence situation, that is only half the story.  The human element is one of two keys on the ring, Nepal has unique dynamics,  even different from our neighbours India where people like Dr Vidya Athreya has done incredible work on human and leopard coexistence strategy.

While my recent focus has been presenting translocation strategy (as that process grows nearer for the leopard Dipnani) I’ve been deeply touched by thoughts and experiences of a vast array of people of all ages.

At yesterday’s forum hosted by CMDN (Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal) their Executive Director, Dibesh Karmacharya, made the comment that a faith based society, with essentially a belief system influenced by animism, was losing its way, was disconnecting from nature.  His concern was palpable, I thought of my own birth country, New Zealand, a place with such a clean green reputation and my own feelings of loss there, as I journeyed through mountains and forests where the mighty Moa, the world’s biggest bird should still roam.  It doesn’t, the several sub species were part of one the planet’s fastest extinctions, all due to human kind.

The gathering at CMDN was the first in what I see as a vital concept, a meeting of minds.  My thanks to everyone involved, particularly Adarsh who created the initial momentum.  Also a special mention regarding my co-presenter Shristi, you are an inspiration, your passion for our fellow beings is without peer, the term voice for the voiceless doesn’t do you justice.

Last night as I added to and went through notes, I thought of some of the talented people getting involved, particularly within our Task Force.  This gives me huge hope but the clock is ticking for the leopard.  There is a serious misunderstanding that increased conflict translates into leopard numbers that give stakeholders least concern.  The issue of local extinction seems to be lost on many even in the scientific community.  Just because there are sustainable populations in leopard sub species in some areas does not mean all is well.  When an apex predator vanishes from any ecosystem all life is affected.  I get frequent messages from all over Asia, along the lines of “Jack, we have not seen any sign of leopard here for a long time” and yet the species does not get the conservation emphasis it needs.  This lack of understanding runs alongside some dark agendas as well as the disconnection Dibesh mentioned.

Coexistence strategy is fundamental to leopard conservation.  A serious think tank is required, there is the talent in this country to drive the solutions and it was interesting yesterday how many times religious value was mentioned but sadly often within the context that the rupee was taking over as a god.  I spoke of the increased value of leopard skins (and other body parts) on the black market and because the leopard does not parade itself in front of tourist and tourism operator dwelling jeeps like its close relation the tiger, we have hit a serious rock where in the minds of many the leopard is worth more dead than alive.  Once again science vanishes out the window as does another aspect which Dr Athreya refers to as Social Caring Capacity.

But this is where it gets really tricky.  I’ve mentioned before now there is a trigger where tolerance of leopards evaporates.  That trigger is when there are human fatalities, people killed by leopards, particularly children.  Sadly, through western Nepal through to adjoining Indian States (especially Uttarakhand) there have been hundreds and hundreds of such cases in the last few decades.  It’s still happening and it is deeply frustrating that so many could have been avoided with better intervention.  There is no doubt that poverty is a huge factor but how long does the world hang its hat on that in the global hotspot of human-big cat conflict?

Retaliation and wildlife crime mean leopards die. Everyone reading this already knows that but the final question I asked at yesterday’s gathering was how great is the will to protect the leopard?  Keeping people and their livestock safe is part of the obvious solutions, if we are serious about leopard protection but as my own focus moves back to the wildlife crime aspect, it is really time to question those who could support our efforts more.  Just how much the world values living with leopards is going to be answered over these next few years as we know of the declining populations of almost all sub species.

The core of human and leopard coexistence points, as with many wildlife and other environmental issues, to our own existence, not just in a country like Nepal where political and social stability is at a crucial juncture but throughout the vast range that nature herself created for the most adaptable and versatile of the big cats.

The clock is ticking…