The Last Roar of a Leopard

Namaste, Jack here in Nepal. My thanks to all who read these project updates/blogs. This will probably be the last one for a couple of months, it’s always busy but the next few weeks will be especially so.

Last week in a brief post I touched on the subject of leopards in rehabilitation having their own space with contact with other wildlife species an important part of their recovery with a view to reintroduction to the wild. I’ll go deeper into that strategy in this update but first I want to talk about a particular leopard and the impression this big cat left on me.

The leopard was older than the leopard Asa you can see in the image but still had a touch of youth in his strong, powerful face. He was big for his age which I’m guessing at being between three and four years of age. He had come into the treatment area after being yet another victim caught in a deadly snare. His wounds were severe, his flesh ripped to shreds down both flanks, made worse by his obvious struggle as he had tried to bite and claw away the wire of the snare.

I’ve seen many leopards either still caught in snares and after removal of these horrible traps. There’s also been the cats which haven’t survived by the time they were found. There are generally two types of snares used by poachers, the metal claw version which animals step into and the wire trap which tightens as the victim struggles. The wire snares often envelop the torso thus the ripping effect as the animal tries to free itself. I’ve seen leopards and other animals still alive with exposed organs.

Recovery from snare injuries depends very much on circumstance. The time spent in the snare before rescue dictates the depth of injuries as well as infection risk if it hasn’t already set in. In all cases the availability of resources has an effect on the outcome, this is one of the biggest battles. In the middle hills (really a misnomer because these steep forested areas would be classified mountains anywhere else but here in the Himalaya) of India and Nepal a leopard rescue can be a logistical nightmare particularly during monsoon or a deep snow winter. Then there is the task of getting the big cat to a treatment area, this can mean a journey of many hours. Stress on the cat either through tranquilization or it being enclosed in a small carry cage is another key factor.

So the odds are not good and for the magnificent male leopard I’m referring to this time that was certainly the case. Vet Doctor Chitra and a couple of wildlife technicians had travelled several hours in a jeep with the big cat.  I arrived after having just spent many hours working in an area where another leopard in rehab was being held. By the time I got there it was obvious the leopard could not be saved. He was in real distress and unfortunately several people had turned up to rubber neck, this adding to the stress, for everyone. I was my normal direct self in this type of situation and the crowd was shooed away in no uncertain terms. Before that happened the leopard let out a huge roar, his last act of defiance, his voice of anger, confusion and hurt. He died soon after.

I’ve heard that roar in my mind many times since. It motivated me when a couple of weeks ago a young female leopard arrived in Bardia, also a snare victim. The LTF working with Park staff, we’ve managed to keep this one alive although it’s not a done deal yet, survival and possible reintroduction to the wild still not certain. Part of the reason I was in Bardia was to further collaboration and plan for improved facilities and protocol. A lot of the next few weeks will be continuing that task but I’m hopeful of solid progress both in Bardia as well as another site closer to the Annapurna Himalaya.

Those of you who follow our Twitter feeds at @WildTigerNews and @LeopardLives will have seen a lot of reference of late to the escalating number of leopards killed in India/Nepal region. Retaliation (because of stress caused in human/wildlife conflict including livestock depredation), territorial battles because of lack of habitat and above all poaching, are the causes of deaths which have numbered well over 300 in the first eight months of this year.

This means that every leopard that can be rescued and reintroduced to the wild is important. At the moment it is fair to say we are losing the battle when it comes to leopard conservation. It was heartening to see data on the stable numbers in Bardia but with an increasing tiger population (along with rhinos the tiger has the most conservation emphasis in Nepal) the push for space over the next few years will put more stress on leopards, pushing them to the fringes of the National Park.  Further north in the hills the picture is grim as poaching is rife. I’ve mentioned before how the Annapurna Conservation Area is of increased importance to maintain a genetically viable Himalayan leopard population. Base populations mean translocation is possible in the future, to fill the ever widening gaps where the leopard has vanished due to the reasons I’ve mentioned above.

So understanding territorial dynamics if leopards are to be reintroduced is important and this is why the strategy of isolation (minimal human contact) during rehabilitation is vital. Those of you who have followed will know of our work raising tiny cubs which were reintroduced to the wild but the treatment and rehab of injured and/or conflict leopards presents a whole raft of different problems. With two leopards in rehab at the moment, these are some of the challenges we face in the next few months. Rehab leopards have what we call temporary dens set in isolated jungle areas so they have direct interaction with the local wildlife. Hunting enclosures are part of the infrastructure so that we can be sure rehab cats are acting naturally before release.

The next process is known as ‘soft release’ whreby leopards are gradually given access to surrounding jungle once we are sure they have ‘homed’ the area which means they understand this is part of their territory. Having solid data on the density of other apex predators in these areas is crucial as is making sure leopards have adequate time adapting to their surroundings.  This lessens risk as opposed to just pushing out the back of a jeep into an area they know nothing about. That tactic has caused many problems in the past, particularly in India where human fatalities have resulted because leopards have tried to get back to what they consider to be their home territory. Obviously adequate prey density is vital to selection of the soft release zone.

Down the track we’ll bring more on developments in monitoring systems for released leopards and how these systems can also be applied in areas with a high incidence of conflict.

Understanding leopard behavior in general, particularly in these Himalayan regions, is an ongoing challenge. Because of the difficult terrain and the secretive nature of these cats it is a far more daunting learning process than study of its African cousins. But obviously there are similarities so I encourage you watch this excellent documentary by Nat Geo, it gives hints of the behavior of the species although I envy the film makers and researchers not having to climb relentless steep mountains like the ones in our back yard.

I thank those who have enquired regarding our commercial practices to fund these projects. There’s been a few delays getting ‘Wild Leopard’ honey back on the shelves but it’s happening shortly. The brand has a few other products joining it soon and sales of leopard images are ongoing, thanks to those who purchase, every single rupee counts. There’s no doubt leopards are a blind spot both in the conservation world and the general public. The species has very few champions.

A lack of urgency and respect plus the favoritism given to the ‘icon species’ by way of millions of dollars every year is contributing to the downfall of the leopard. So I thank those in the tiny critical mass who are contributing in a meaningful way to the survival of this species. We need more of you but in the meantime our efforts continue, our strategies are good, they have proven successful but for the leopard to have a chance we have to expand.  We know it can happen but the clock is ticking, we need to hear less last roars of leopards losing their lives before it is their true time.