I was asked in an interview recently if I felt let down by the situation. I replied that it’s not about me, I’m in a position where I could fly away from it all tomorrow, the leopard can’t, it is the leopard being let down.
But of course I can’t fly away from the situation… I wouldn’t do that.
This project update relates to our work regarding coexistence and rehabilitation but this time also looks strongly at the wildlife crime aspect as poaching and trafficking hit the leopard hard.
This update only gives a tiny percentage of our work but the first thing I’d like to do is thank the team assisting where the leopard Dipnani is being rehabilitated before reintroduction to the wild. Bardia National Park staff and Army Anti-Poaching personnel help make sure the area is secure, this is a vital factor in making sure Dipnani has no human contact. I have a strict procedure I use to make sure the young female leopard retains her wariness of people and Dipnani has certainly done that, she is extremely protective of her den area and exhibiting true wild behaviour.
There will be a more comprehensive update re Dipnani in a couple of months, security is of the utmost importance. It’s so far so good as far as her progress is concerned. Dipnani is an important cat in so many ways, not least that her circumstance has meant we have been able to get a facility underway. There is still a lot to be done, it’s day to day but the commitment to the project is absolute from our side.
Those of you who follow my posts on social media have been introduced to little Ridem, she is becoming our poster girl for coexistence. The positive aspect regarding attacks by leopards on people here in Nepal is that there have been less fatalities. This means that the trigger for retaliation is reduced. Human fatalities generally fall in Ridem’s age group, she is 5 and we’ve found that toddlers up to children in early teens are most at risk. However it is incredibly important to understand that when a leopard takes on behaviour traits that mean it is less wary of people and more likely to attack then all ages are at risk and human adults, particularly in India, are taken.
Here in Bardia National Park from where I write this we’ve had several serious incidents of late. We’ve reacted quickly and made people aware of the situation and emphasized how we have to change our behaviour, just completely minimize the opportunities for the leopard to attack. This then promotes behaviour change in the cat but the situation can never be taken for granted, vigilance has to be ongoing.
Another tool we’ve been testing is flashlights with strobe. I’ve successfully deterred a leopard while using flashing light. This is a very different approach to fixed location strobe which I am completely against because of what could lead to dangerous habituation by leopards thus making the situation worse as the big cats lose wariness. A hand held device is a different dynamic altogether, testing will continue.
We’ll continue to update on our coexistence work and I’ll also bring positive news of the work done by District Forest Officer Prabhat Sapkota who we are collaborating with in the highly affected area of Baitadi in far west Nepal.
So onto the deadly serious issue of poaching and trafficking of leopards and other wild cats. Our social media platforms have highlighted disturbing news of late. That is not to say the situation has not been ongoing but there seems to have been a spike. I’ve mentioned before that it is impossible to be accurate about the proportion of trafficked body parts compared to seizures but Indian Customs authorities use the rule of thumb of multiplying by ten. This leads to a highly disturbing figure and means that the leopard will not sustain itself, we know the species is in decline anyway.
We work in conjunction with the appropriate parties both at ground level and internationally. The main problem is lack of resources and this is directly linked to lack of will by Governments, the large conservation organizations (big orgs) and public who are in a position to support. There is absolutely no doubt the leopard is a targeted species by organized trafficking groups linked to mafias involved in illegal trade of not just wildlife. There is also opportunistic poaching linked to poverty situations and sometimes retaliation in human-leopard conflict situations. While skins are in demand it is also teeth and claws of the big cats being traded. There is also evidence that bones are being used as substitute for tiger bones as the large striped cat becomes harder to be illegally hunted.
Not all incidents are made public, there are investigations and safety issues to always be considered. I have no idea how many dead or injured leopard cases I’ve attended now and on top of that there are constant updates, sadly these are daily. Just yesterday three clouded leopard skins were seized here in Nepal and that followed 3 seizures over three days of common leopard parts. Once again, do the maths by using what I described above and this is a deadly serious situation.
In a few days I head to Kathmandu in the next step to get the leopard placed on the protected species list here in Nepal. I’ve mentioned this before and there is the “Day of the Leopard” page on this site. Getting harsher penalties and more thorough investigation along with more arrests of middle men and kingpins is vital. Full protection can lead to those measures. It’s no use just arresting ground level poachers, they are queuing up. But that’s not to say poachers should be let off lightly, the use of snares leads to horrific outcomes, something I have now witnessed many times.
I want to pay kudos at this point to my colleague Pragati Shahi, a brave soul who I’ll talk about more in coming updates. We have some fiercely dedicated people involved in leopard conservation but support has to increase.
Before I head to the capital it’s more jungle time as I make sure the leopard Dipnani is settled in her current stage. This beautiful animal is precious and she too, like Ridem, is a poster for our efforts. But her security means at this stage her life is not splashed round publicly.
Nepal, India and south Asia in general have landscapes of great beauty. The leopard is a remarkable animal able to adapt to many varying habitats. Evolution has produced a masterpiece, a true example of nature’s finest work.
What the leopard needs now is true friends, the leopard needs true loyalty, not just lip service and clicks. The next few months will tell us just who in Governments, big orgs and the public are really genuine about that…