The mysterious big cats of the Annapurna… and is Asa, the Leopard of Hope, a father?

by Jack Kinross

This is part project update, part blog but very much  leopard.  The image is one of my favourites because it was taken by remote camera at close to 3000m above sea level in the Annapurna Himalaya.  The leopard was one we were trying to understand as it had been involved in several attacks on livestock, including killing a full sized buffalo which is unusual for a leopard.  It has never attacked a human but we decided to monitor as best possible because quite a few children walked several hours to school through its territory.

The landscape is relentlessly steep, it’s hot and humid this time of the year and having just returned from the region for the umpteenth time I’m about to count the leech bites.  The leeches are nowhere as mysterious and secretive as the leopards.  I wish they were.

I have huge respect for Himalayan leopards.  They don’t have the luxury of vast flat expanses as in lower Nepal and India or the African plains. The upland jungles are a tough place to survive due to the terrain and scattered prey.  The seasonal variations are more marked than the lowlands, this means heavy monsoons through to deep snow.  One advantage is that in thick forest there is often the opportunity for leopards to lie in ambush in trees, we all know leopards love to climb trees  but the pursuit of a nimble and speedy barking deer in dense vegetation is one of the many challenges the leopard faces in the Annapurna Himalaya.  In higher regions the leopard has been known to take the same prey as its relative the snow leopard, this means blue sheep or Himalayan Tahr may be on the menu.  Lower down where humans have settled, goats and dogs are taken.  In recent days I’ve visited sites where horses and donkeys were also preyed upon by the big cat.

For all we know about the Himalayan leopards there is so much more we don’t know.  Camera trap images have shown they range to well above 4000m but these are fleeting glimpses into secret lives.  Tracking big cats at that altitude is problematic, the trail can run cold very quickly,  then the wonder comes in, the respect for how this remarkable apex predator survives in these highest of high forested places.  That’s why any evidence of leopards in these harsh places always pleases me, it’s an indication that things are as they should be.

The urgency to protect wild places has never been greater.  The Annapurna, where the leopard is boss, is the largest conservation area in Nepal but it faces many challenges all due to human influence.  The forbidding terrain away from trekking trails holds many secrets and careful footwork plus a tolerance of blood hungry leeches is required.  Big cats living in places like these have to be highly adaptable and durable.  In the leopard, nature has created just such an animal and its role in these Himalayan ecosystems is vital.  There is the great challenge to understand more about these high altitude leopards but to further conservation efforts these challenges must be met.

While in the territory of the leopard Asa I came across a nice surprise, sign of a female leopard with two young cubs.  Their presence was confirmed after consulting with locals who told that one of their number had had a brief encounter with the spotted cat family.  Naturally the first thought that came to mind was the pleasing one that maybe Asa was the father.  The leopard I spent so much time with is always on my mind and the idea of him having offspring appeals as a huge bonus to his rewilding.

We’ll never know for sure but that is not a bad thing.  While it is important we further understand these Himalayan leopards there are some mysteries better left unsolved…

The Annapurna is a place where the leopard can have a future.  The Annapurna Leopard Project is in its formative stages (we’ll bring comprehensive updates as it progresses), there are some sign offs to be made, but using strategies and tools such as Ecosystem Reboot and LeopardEye we can ensure a future for these great cats in a world where through much of their range their future is very uncertain.