Two leopard sightings have made waves on social media in Pakistan when a healthy-looking male common leopard was spotted near Islamabad’s Margalla Hills Trail No 5 and a video of a leopard in Nathia Gali was recorded a few days later by some tourists.
People speculated that the leopards are being seen more because humans aren’t leaving their homes. Wildlife officials in Murree, Rawalpindi and Abbottabad told SAMAA Digital, however, that they have not recorded more sightings of wild animals since the lockdown began. Sighting a common leopard in Abbottabad is not uncommon, one official said. Spotting leopards near Margalla Hills National Park is not something new either as we have recorded it before, said Mohebullah Naveed, whose camera captured the leopard.
A common leopard was caught on camera near Islamabad's Margalla Hills Trail No 5 on November 28, 2019. Photo: Islamabad Wildlife Management Board/Facebook
“There is a perception that there no longer are any leopards near Margalla Hills but that is not true,” said WWF-Pakistan’s Muhammad Waseem, who is also a member of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group. What was far more interesting in the latest Islamabad sighting was the leopard’s good health. This could mean that he was not facing any scarcity of food.
There have been on and off sightings in the area, he remarked. In 2007, a leopard was spotted near President House and then a leopard injured many animals at the Islamabad Zoo. Recently, a leopard was spotted when the royal couple, William and Kate, was visiting Pakistan.
The presence of leopards in Pakistan is known, but there is very little information on the distribution and number of subspecies. A 2018 research paper* recorded 15 leopards, with the help of camera trappings, in Swat, Dir and the Margalla Hills. The researchers noted that the residents and wildlife officials believed that the species had disappeared from the area.
They used to be commonly distributed but with areas becoming more ‘developed’, their population has decreased, Waseem said. “Now, they are mostly seen in northern Pakistan.”
There are three leopards here that we know of, said Dr Anisur Rehman, the chairperson of the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board, while speaking on SAMAA TV’s programme Nadeem Malik Live on Monday. There are two in the Margalla Hills and one in Shahdara village (not to be confused with Lahore’s Shahdara) near Murree.
The fascination with studying big cats in Pakistan grew after six women were killed in a series of leopard attacks during the summer of 2005 in Abbottabad. The myth of ‘blood sucking’ leopards became the topic of discussion at dinner tables.
While the percentage of people killed by leopards in Pakistan remains comparatively low, the beast arouses fear in most people. In the past, the western media has typecast people of Pakistan as being more scared of big cats than terrorists, while referring to Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad in 2011.
Employees of the Wildlife Department treat an injured leopard in Peshawar, 28 June 2006. The two year old leopard was captured by the Wildlife Department with the help of tribesmen of Pakhi Bala village, some 30 kms from the north western city of Peshawar. Photo: AFP
Fear, however, is a major reason why the population of the beast continues to decline. Every time, a common leopard slinks from the mountains into villages, the villagers kill the animal. Sometimes, the carnivore is targeted as part of ‘revenge killing’.
Leopards frequently attack and eat goats and domestic dogs. The owners of the goats and dogs then kill the beast in retaliation. This happens because the Pakistani government does not provide the people with any compensation after their animals are killed, Waseem explained. When compensation is provided, the process is very slow.
Poaching and illegal trade is another big threat. Just a few months ago, the skin of a common leopard was confiscated from a man in Islamabad’s Saidpur.
Employees of the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board showcase the leopard skin they confiscated from a poached in Islamabad’s Saidpur in October 2019. Photo: Islamabad Wildlife Management Board/Facebook
Pakistan’s law does provide leopards protection, but regulations are poorly implemented, says a 2018 study*.
Leopards are “shy, elusive, and nocturnal carnivores,” said Waseem. They come out to hunt from dawn to dusk and eat more than 62 species. They are territorial and there is only one leopard in one territory. Sometimes, the territories of males overlap with female leopards.
When they mate, leopards come together for 10 days. Their patterns should not be confused with lions that live with their families, Waseem added.
*The Un-Common Leopard: presence, distribution and abundances in Gallies and Murree Forest Division, Northern Pakistan (2018) by Muhammad Asad, Muhammad Waseem, James G Ross and Adrian M Paterson.