An ill-conceived construction boom is destroying the natural habitat of the solitary big cats and causing disorientation
ecently, the footage of a leopard running loose in a gated housing society, located in an upscale neighbourhood, went viral on social media.
The terrified guldar skipping over walls was an unfamiliar sight in the residential area. It soon drew a crowd of part-curious, part-sacred onlookers who notified the authorities.
A six-hour rescue operation ensued, during which the leopard panicked and injured three people. According to the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB), the rescue effort took some time because the team did not have appropriate equipment like dart guns.
Soon afterwards, social media was rife with rumours and speculation. Some claimed that a high-ranking official had been keeping the animal as a pet. Others alleged that the leopard had killed and injured many people.
Sana Raja, an animal rights activist who was also a part of the rescue team tasked with relocating the big cat, rubbishes these speculations. “The leopard was not anyone’s pet,” she says.
“The chairperson of Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB), too, clarified this on Twitter right after the incident but some people are more drawn to the sensational than the accurate, especially on social media platforms,” says Raja, who is also a member of the IWMB.
According to Sana, the leopard came from the wild, “...Most probably from the nullah located at the boundary of gated housing society which is only six kilometres away from the Kahuta forest,” she tells The News on Sunday.
The rescue concluded when Sana and her team captured the leopard, examined its health and released it back into the wild at Margalla Hills National Park.
Refuting claims that the leopard might have been a pet, Raja explains that if a wild animal, like a leopard, is kept as a pet, the owners usually remove its canine teeth and claws as a precaution. “Also, such animals are kept sedated when caged,” says Sana.
“The captured leopard had both canines and claws intact, and was not sedated,” points out Raja. “This indicates that it was indeed a wild animal that had strayed into the residential area.”
She says the leopard might have come to the residential area looking for a safe haven after being scared off by poachers in the nearby forest.
“March is the breeding season for many animals, including leopards. During this season, groups of poachers steal the cubs by scaring off the mother leopard, often by shooting at her. Sometimes they kill her,” says Raja. The cubs are then sold at high prices.
“I believe that the leopard found in the DHA had escaped such an attack in the forest and entered the residential area at night,” she says.
According to Vaqar Zakariya, the acting chairperson of the IWMB, it was not the leopard that mistakenly entered the residential area. Rather, he says, humans have encroached upon its natural habitat.
“The rapid expansion of residential schemes around the capital is destroying the natural habitat of wild animals,” says Zakariya. “This is one of the primary reasons why we receive an increasing number of reports of leopard sightings in and around the capital,” he explains.
According to a study, The Un-Common Leopard: Presence, Distribution, and Abundance in Gallies and Murree Forest Division, Northern Pakistan, leopards are sparsely distributed across Pakistan. The understanding of the demographic structure and distribution of the species is quite limited.
The research, conducted from April to July 2017, and from March to June 2018, confirms the presence of leopards, locally known as guldar, in Swat, Dir and Margalla Hills.
The study says that leopards are wide-ranging carnivores. They defend their territories and maintain their home ranges. The concept of a ‘home range’ is described as an area in which the animal pursues food or engages in routine activity.
“Unlike lions and other cats, leopards are agile, smart, adaptive and adventurous. They dare to venture into human settlements,” says Vaqar Zakariya.
The leopard population is declining throughout their species range, according to the study. As a result, leopards are now extinct in 63-75 per cent of their historical range. This is the highest rate of decline in their population in Asia where several subspecies are characterised as endangered.
The report states that the main threats to leopards include habitat loss and degradation, developments close to protected areas, rapid depletion of the natural prey base, poaching and conflicts with livestock causing revenge-killing by livestock owners. Isolation and fragmentation of habitats are further threatening the leopards in the remaining ranges by undermining the genetic health of the populations.
“For the past 30 to 40 years, we have been noticing the signs of leopards in the Margalla Hills. More and more people are now spotting the big cat because more people are going into their habitat through trails and due to new housing schemes,” says the IWMB chairperson.
Zakariya says that the IWMB researchers have found signs of leopards in the Leopard Preservation Zones on Trail 4 and Trail 6. On Trail 5, the animal was spotted near Nurpur Shahan. “It is not easy to spot the animal on Trial 5 as almost 4,000 people visit the trail every day,” says the official.
In October 2021, former prime minister Imran Khan had directed the wildlife authorities to set up a Leopard Preservation Zone in Margalla Hills National Park (MHNP) where the leopards had been spotted.
“We have introduced guided tours to the preservation zones. These mainly focus on educating the visitors about the habits of leopards,” says Zakariya.
“These big cats rarely attack people,” he says, “their prey of choice is wild boar. Our cameras have recorded them eating wild boars at night. Due to the leopards, the number of wild boars roaming around the capital has visibly decreased,” adds Zakariya.
“We have recorded only one incident of a leopard attacking humans. It was around ten years ago in Galiat. That leopard was an exception; he was old and starving,” says Zakariya. “Otherwise, we have more registered cases of humans attacking leopards,” he says.
On March 20, an Asian leopard was found dead in Margalla Hills. The body was found in the Shahdara Valley of Margalla Hills National Park. According to the initial report, it had been hit by 11 bullets.
Last year, a rare-breed leopard was mysteriously found dead in Islamabad’s Margalla Hills. Media reports indicated that the leopard may have been poisoned.
Despite the hostility they face from humans, the leopards are not leaving the territory. On May 1, a camera trap footage showed a young leopard at Trail 5 at sunset.
“We have displayed safe timings for people at the most frequently visited trails. Moving around in their territory before dawn or after sunset is a routine for the leopards. It is up to the visitors to avoid visiting the trails at these times for their own safety,” says Zakariya. “If the visitors follow these directives, there is no danger of human-leopard conflict in Margalla Hills,” he says.
The writer is a reporter for The News International