This update has been published on 29 July 2022 (with short message appended 5 August) which is International Day of the Tiger during this current Year of the Tiger. Tiger numbers have increased across India and Nepal but this must not mask the serious issues of increased human-wildlife conflict and the plight of another species, just as important as the tiger, the leopard. In fact it deeply concerns me that the continued persecution of the leopard is in fact the collateral damage because there is so much emphasis on tiger. I’ve kept this update concise, in some ways it extends on Snapshot which was published on 1 February as well as leading into a broad body of work, the report due for February 2023. A busy six months ahead, for now please read on…
The large male prime of life leopard lies where he had his last breathing moments, we put him there after he arrived with gunshot wounds he had no chance of surviving. I just wanted him to be able to pass away quietly in the jungle, where this isolated rehab station is located.
This magnificent cat is part of a spate injured leopards of late, some ripped apart by snares, others also hurt in a human dominated world, such as the young female leopard who died in my arms recently, I suspect as much from the trauma of being separated from her mother as anything else.
The leopard in the image is the subject of investigation so I can’t go into further details at this stage except to say that it is important to ascertain if the big cat was shot in retaliation for human-leopard conflict or was targeted for poaching. The area in which the leopard was shot is a poaching hotspot as well as a known corridor for trafficking of wildlife body parts, a stretch of jungle where local knowledge is hard to tap into for many reasons I’ve discussed before. The area is rife with home made guns. I’ve also written much about the overall trafficking of leopard body parts, you can read more at Snapshot, sadly the forecast we make there regarding numbers is coming true based on seizure data and poaching incidents in India/Nepal so far in 2022.
We’ll have a full report at the end of the Year of the Tiger in February 2023 regarding poaching/trafficking of leopards as well as a comprehensive update of our own interventions to combat this. In this blog/update however, I want to concentrate more on our relationship with the leopard, how coexistence has been stretched but that I am cautiously optimistic we have the tools to improve the situation, it will just come down to effort and support.
The image above, which I referred to on social media, is of a large male leopard which used to visit Leopard Camp when he felt like it but never when I was there, it was always through camera traps I got wind of his comings and goings. Once while sleeping in a tent at Leopard Camp I became aware of another leopard close by but it was a smaller female, cautiously checking things out. Over the years at different leopard rehab stations where the big cats were being readied for reintroduction to the wild there have been many visits by leopards and other species, I once had to shoo away a tiger at a lower altitude rehab station, he was a curious male who was making a nuisance of himself. I will tell more of these experiences in a larger body of work one day, they were part of much evidence that isolated jungle rehab stations are the best way to give leopards the chance to live wild again.
As much as rescue/rehab/reintroduction/rewilding is important the key is prevention of man induced injury in the first place. This is where our work with LeopardEye which is a combination of technical and human resources to aid coexistence through advanced monitoring and understanding comes into play. It is where I place my optimism. There’s four key sites we’re working in a collaborative implementation, more on how things are going will be in the February 2023 report but essentially it is very much about community engagement.
This is where the whole situation gets tricky however because the buy in to improve human and leopard coexistence is very much linked to the overall perceptions of these big cats and the attitudes/actions which result. A key element is that retaliation seems to be the main factor in people killing leopards ahead of targeted poaching for body parts which is still a factor. We’re investigating the extent of body parts of leopards killed in retaliation reach the illegal market, this has thrown up other factors such as ‘leopard trophies’ (from trophy hunting in Africa) entering the illegal market, thereby even stimulating that market. That issue is to be further explored but I’ve twice been questioned in remote villages as to why when a rich white man hunts a leopard as a trophy it is perceived as legal compared to a villager in India or Nepal trying to protect his family in a place where leopards have killed children?
Above, a recent trophy hunt in Zimbabwe, the exact moment the bullet hit the leopard.
Below, the little boy in the image was killed by a leopard. Soon after the leopard was caught and killed in retaliation in western Nepal, an incident I witnessed but was powerless to do anything about.
The two images give very different dynamics regarding our relationship with leopards. The next image is of two men telling us of an incident nearby, a child taken by a leopard, one of many over a five year period. They tell us of their fear, anger and sadness.
Indeed, as I write this, I’m just north of an area where thirteen children have been taken by leopard in the last four years. The statistics regarding human fatalities are sobering. Each case is tragic. The numbers of leopards killed in retaliation? No one knows, we have indications, there are many leopard grave yards and as I say, also strong indications about the levels of body parts going on the illegal market after retaliation killings. The awful truth is that people (including many children) and leopards die in this conflict but incredibly, there are those who end up making money out of those facts. The skin of a leopard on someone’s wall or floor after that big cat had killed a child?
Frustration with the leopard in communities where livestock is taken frequently is also a major reason for retaliation. There will be more about how tolerance varies according to different compensation in the February 2023 report, it’s relevant to how leopard body parts become available to the illegal market but by reading this far then hopefully you’ve managed to gain some understanding of potential feelings about leopards in highly affected conflict areas. The helplessness felt by communities in these areas is compounded by a perceived (factual or otherwise) lack of support from authorities and the outside world. Communities will often take matters into their own hands, sometimes it may only be one or two individuals, leopards die as a consequence. Sometimes, and this can be the case with tiger too, if there is an extraction ( a conflict big cat removed from the area) by authorities it can lead to the situation worsening if new leopards then enter the area claiming territory, or worse still, if the wrong cat is removed. These scenarios can erode confidence in authorities.
Above all as tolerance is reduced the perspectives of those living with leopards are defined. Coexistence is stretched, often to breaking point. Words like conservation and ecosystems mean little when lives and livelihood are threatened. The lure of revenue through measures such as eco-tourism are usually not feasible in remote high country where leopards are so secretive and not usually seen until it is too late. The obvious solution of alternative livelihoods away from livestock is easier said than done, there are many issues around this and while there is progress it will take time. It is the short term which needs more emphasis as well.
So if money can be made by killing leopards which will also reduce conflict, then that lure becomes tangible. The percentage of leopard body parts hitting the market after being sourced from areas of high conflict is an area of investigation for us because it gives an important link between human-wildlife conflict (HWC) and illegal wildlife trade (IWT). More on our findings in the Feruary 2023 report.
In the meantime focusing on perspectives and how to change them is vital. People just want to feel safe, they want their children to be safe, they want their livestock to be safe.
The image above, as explained at LeopardEye, was one of a series of important eye openers for us. As I’ve written at other posts, it gave us a real key into the psyche of a community under threat. Very close by where the camera was placed a woman was killed by a leopard two weeks earlier. After thoroughly scouting the area, looking for leopard sign, we placed cameras which sent data in real time to a base station from which we could alert locals. The response by the community living in the steep mountain area just north of Bardiya National Park in western Nepal was extremely positive in that they had early warning of leopard presence and thus kept away from those areas but also there was a strong buy in that the people now had some ownership of solution, something they had claimed to be lacking when we researched.
Unfortunately, as you can see by the date on the image, covid-19 lockdowns and other logistical issues caused by the pandemic meant a stalling in roll out but we still managed to test and improve the system to the extent we are now looking at live streaming and species ID using artificial intelligemce.
The technology is obviously important but it is the other human elements, as explained at LeopardEye, which gain motivation from the tech, which are key and meant a strong change in perspective simply because people felt safe and supported. Communication both through technology and human contact lifted, and the positive perspective change that yes, if there was more effective help in coexistence strategy, simply the feeling of being safe, was such that in turn there was less chance of retaliation.
Not for one second do we believe this is the whole answer, it only takes one leopard to kill a child, it only takes one person to kill a leopard but by changing perspectives and putting into place active measures which work, then the likelihood of either of those events taking place is reduced. A multi-layered approach to coexistence is essential as it is recognized that HWC has become a major risk to biodiversity. Fast, effective interventions to create more positive perspectives with the goal of incident prevention the ultimate by people understanding the indicators which could lead to a tragic event.
Nothing is perfect but our learnings that in the main tolerance goes so closely hand in hand with security have shown us what is possible and that incidents can be reduced. The next six months before an update in February 2023 after the end of the current Year of the Tiger, will see further implementation of LeopardEye to get it to a stage where its role within Mission Leopard takes a natural evolution as technology and strategies improve. Data security (developing systems so that information does not fall into the wrong hands) and buy in from authorities are constants which need work but the most important element, community engagement, is the strength and heart to changing perspectives and giving positive outcomes.
I leave you for now with this image below, it is a screenshot from a video of a leopard who had a soft light shine at him, activated by a sensor. The leopard was entering an area we wanted to deter him from, the soft light, as non invasive as possible did the job, the leopard quietly moved away. More on this and other developments in the next update as we continue to strive to protect both people and leopards so that images like the very first one in this update are few and far between. From sea level to over 4000m we’ll be active, the elusive mountain leopard at that higher altitude is a little understand animal but who holds some keys to climate change (vital as an apex predator in mountain regions remembering that Nepal is the planet’s second biggest watershed) and coexistence in general, will become known to you in The Sacred Valley Concept, a project we know can bring much positive change … those vital changes in perspectives…
Brief message added 5 August 2022
Many thanks to those who have made contact in the week since I published the update. It’s encouraging to know people care, we need more to do so, I thank those who have offered to help in any way and please if you have information about human-leopard conflict or poaching/trafficking of leopard, do not hesitate to contact me.
An over-riding theme in communication with people is just how complex the relationship is between humans and leopards here on the sub-continent, especially in India and Nepal. As I mentioned in the update there is evidence growing that retaliation kills against leopard are resulting in a significant percentage of the leopard body parts traded. We’ll have more on these findings in the main report in February 2023 but it does add to the burning question of the psychological impact intense conflict with leopards has on people, particularly when children are killed. I’m going deeper into this with psychologists and anthropologists as this is an aspect not given enough emphasis by wildlife conservationists. As I mentioned in the update (and many times before), people justifiably want to feel a degree of safety when living among big cats, if we are serious about coexistence then this has to be a priority.
Further message added 6 August 2022
A recent seizure in Delhi…
I just want to express further thanks to those who made direct contact after I made social media posts yesterday (Twitter Instagram Facebook), it is appreciated. My posts are always just the tip of the iceberg. I just ask that information contains verifiable facts rather than speculation when possible. If you’ve arrived at this page and have information please don’t hesitate to contact me. This situation isn’t good, it’s not healthy or reasonable to hide behind ‘estimated tiger numbers’ because the leopard and many other species actually suffer because of that. I’ll update again in a few weeks including news on the coexistence cameras, as mentioned in this overall update, keeping people safe is paramount to coexistence because attitude and tolerance stem so much from that. It’s a busy six months ahead before the February report which in many ways is a highly detailed extension of Snapshot, it’s a hard hitting body of work with the facts for those courageous enough to act. Emojis don’t stop anything, leopards and people are dying in a conflict which can be contained, it just needs an across society effort to do so.
Further message added 7 August 2022
This which just came through is a typical example of why the situation is so messy and complicated. Who can blame anyone, particularly in economically challenged areas, for being angry, scared and revenge orientated, basically retaliate to get rid of the problem. Traders take advantage of this. So people with shiny laptops in urban areas need to realize the complexities. Just south of where I sit now 13 children have been taken by leopard in recent times … the resulting death toll of leopard is unknown but it’s not low.
So just to qualify all this, and once again I thank those who care about it, I sat with a social worker this morning discussing the psychological impact that incidents like the one above cause in the affected communities. Perceptions shape tolerances and fear, anger, helplessness shape perceptions. This is why coexistence strategies first and foremost have to have prioritize safety and livelihood. It’s a fine balance in the protection of people and wildlife, the awful irony is children and species like leopard end up the victims. Pouring millions of dollars into icon species conservation and shouting from rooftops when tiger numbers increase doesn’t solve these problems. A lot to do, there are solutions but once again, it needs a total buy in from society as a whole, not just people living with big cats.
Human-Wildlife Conflict is as much a humanitarian concern and an issue for social and economic development as it is a conservation issue.