By guest author Muhammad Awais
Human-leopard conflict is a challenge for the people living near leopard habitat and for the agencies charged with the conservation of the species. Relevant agencies, conservationists, and wildlife managers have a variety of tools to lessen the conflict; but in the Gallies forest of Abbottabad they seem to have been unsuccessful. This is a significant threat to the endangered population of common leopards (Panthera pardus) in Pakistan.
Being nocturnal, leopards often forage at dawn and dusk. At that time they sometimes enter the villages that have been encroaching deeper into the Gallies reserve forests.
On Nov 22, Azhar Ali, aged 8, of Makol village was killed by a leopard while looking for his lost bull. The incident took place after sunset near the reserve forest. Azhar unfortunately became the victim, and was dragged by the leopard to the forest. Azhar’s shouts roused the villagers who tried to chase the animal; but it was too late.
Dozens of such incidents take place every year in Gallies, and in such situations people have a right to be angry at leopards. In 2005 six women were killed by a single leopard in under ten days. In response to such incidents retaliatory killings took place and dozens of leopards died. But at the same time this is no solution to the problem. If people kill leopards, others will move into their territory. Simultaneously if an animal learns to kill people it will keep doing it until translocation.
What is behind the Conflict?
There are several factors which enhance human-leopard conflict. If they aren’t dealt with they could lead to the extirpation of the species.
With the current rate of human population growth in Gallies, conflict with leopards is becoming inevitable. Human activities are resulting in deforestation and habitat loss, which brings people closer to leopards.
Leopards are highly adaptable and can vary their diet accordingly. In areas where natural prey has been depleted, it is common for leopards to prey on humans, dogs, and other domestic animals. The loss of livestock and human lives is a major cause of human-leopard conflict.
Increasing human settlements are also constricting the migration corridors of leopards. Being large, leopards require extensive home ranges. Habitat fragmentation is forcing leopards to pass through human settlements.
Additionally, there is a lack of scientific research on leopards in the Gallies forests. WWF-Pakistan and Abbottabad Wildlife Division, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Wildlife Department jointly studied leopards in Ayubia National Park, but more information is needed outside the park. The lack of community involvement in leopard conservation is another important contributor to human-leopard conflict.
How can we Overcome the Conflict?
Scientific research must be conducted on the species in order to fully understand the impact of human-leopard conflicts in the whole of Gallies. There should be accurate population estimates of the species in the area, and it is necessary to form effective management plans to combat the conflict.
It is now understood that community-based conservation creates long-term solutions to human-wildlife conflicts; so communities must be involved in this area. There should be special education programs for the women and children of Gallies, as they are more vulnerable to leopard attacks.
Currently community participation is restricted to Ayubia National Park. This should be extended to the whole Gallies area. There should be education programs to help people learn about the behavior and ecology of leopards. Residents must be taught that if leopards wander into an area, respond to the situation by staying in a secure area and notifying authorities. Shepherds and herders should be taught about safe husbandry practices including leopard-proof fencing, use of lights at night, and keeping guarding dogs with herds. The good will of local people is one the best tools to overcome human-leopard conflict.
The forest department should also be involved in wildlife conservation. Currently their main focus is on maximizing timber harvests. In such operations, the idea of wildlife (particularly leopard) protection is ignored.
Habitat degradation in the Gallies forests must be checked. Quality habitat and safe corridors for leopards must be established in suitable areas, and this is only possible with the support of local communities.
There is also a lack of rapid management in situations of crisis. If a leopard becomes involved in a conflict, it is necessary to respond quickly in order to prevent panic, injuries, or death of the animal. There should be fast communication and emergency response teams in the Wildlife Department and other concerned stakeholders for quick action.
Government should also restrict the human settlements encroaching on the reserve forests. In this respect Galiat Development Authority should react fast and cancel the commercial licenses issued in the last few years. There should also be a complete ban in the future to secure these areas.
Most importantly, there should be a compensation policy to help locals whose livestock is damaged by leopards.
Key points of education campaigns:
- Being adaptable, leopards mostly dwell in agricultural lands and are attracted to meadows.
- Leopards are not habituated to attack humans: they usually avoid humans.
- Leopards usually only attack in a self-defense. Therefore it is crucial to avoid provoking them.
- If a leopard is occasionally sighted in human settlements it doesn’t mean the animal needs to be captured or killed.
- Killing of leopards could lead to increased conflict as the vacant space will soon be inhabited by another animal.
- The focus should be on long-term solutions. These include better sanitation measures so that wild pig, jackal and dog populations do not attract leopards.
- Proper toilet use in the villages/towns would go a long way towards lessening encounters with leopards.
- Farmers should be taught that livestock sheds must be strong and robust. There should be enough light in the sheds at night to avoid conflict.
- Herders/Shepherds should keep trained guard dogs to protect their livestock from leopards.
I would like to personally thank Muhummad Awais for writing this excellent and informative piece. To learn more about him, click here to read his introductory post.