Leopards: Poached, Trafficked, In Conflict With Humans, Ignored
Leopards (Panthera pardus) in Nepal have made news headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent years. Their wanderings into Kathmandu city have become common. The media, however, cover these incidences with much fanfare despite the threat posed to both animals and humans.
In other parts of the country, regular cases of leopard-human conflict leave families and communities devastated, angered, and anxious. Last week, a leopard killed a thirteen-year-old girl after dragging her from her bed. This was in a remote village in rural Accham district.
In 2015, locals from Kimdanda village in Argakhanchi district killed a leopard that had preyed on six children over the course of nine months. In 2012, leopards killed 15 people, mostly young children, in Baitadi district. But there is another grim side to the story. Leopards don’t just accidentally wander into Kathmandu city from nearby forests or walk into villages looking for trouble. Poachers and smugglers regularly kill the animal and use the capital city as a key transit hub to transport poached leopard parts to China.
Data compiled by the Wildlife Crime Unit of the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) under the Nepal Police show that 37 leopard hides along with 12 teeth were seized between April 2014 and February 2017 inside Kathmandu Valley alone. Similarly, 67 people including four women were arrested during the same period in leopard parts trade in Kathmandu. It is unclear how many cases have managed to evade authorities, but the trend presents a clear picture of active leopard trade through Nepal.
“The network involved in killing leopards and its trade is active in Nepal just like it is in India’s protected areas and forests,” Birendra Johari, Sub Inspector, CIB, who has been involved in raid operations related to tiger and leopard trade, told Onward Nepal.
Birendra Johari, Sub-inspector, CIB
Kathmandu is acting as a transit hub in regional leopard trade.
Easy to Avoid Prison:
According to Sub-inspector Johari, some of the most active areas for wildlife parts trade in Kathmandu valley are Jadibuti, Gokarna, Thamel, Bafal, Sukedhara, Kirtipur, Bagbazar, Gongabu, Naxal, Koteshwor, Balaju buspark, Gongabu and Budhanilkhanta.
The existing law has a penalty of two years imprisonment for those involved in trade of the common leopard and its body parts. However, an option to pay a fine of Rs. 28,000 (approximately US$271) to avoid the prison term is also available.
“In most cases those arrested in leopard trade are freed after paying the fine,” Johari said.
Out of the 23 people arrested for leopard parts trade in 2015, only two served the two years prison sentence.
Low Priority for Leopards:
“Every time a leopard comes into the city and terrorises the public, we assume their number has increased in the forests,” Maheshwar Dhakal, Joint-Secretary at the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation, told Onward Nepal. But this might not be the case, he cautioned.
The leopard population in Nepal is distributed from the Terai plains to the mid hills. But unlike other big cats in Nepal, no study has been initiated to assess the common leopard’s population size in the wild. In the absence of a clear population size, leopards remain largely ignored by conservationists and policy-makers.
Authorities blame this low conservation status of common leopards for the lack of conservation efforts on the part of the government and its wildlife conservation partners. Out of the four big cat species found in Nepal–tigers, clouded leopards, snow leopards, and common leopards– only common leopards are not listed under the protected mammal species in the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1973. There are 26 protected mammals species listed under the Act.
No Protected Area For Leopards:
Protected areas were established in Nepal for large mammals, particularly tigers, rhinos, and elephants in the Tarai plains, and for the snow leopard in the mountains. For example, Chitwan National Park was set up to protect tigers and rhinos, Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve for wild buffaloes, and Parsa Wildlife Reserve for elephants. What about the leopards?
Maheshwar Dhakal, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Forest
There is no protected area set up with a focus on leopard conservation.
“Species assessment is an essential tool in conservation that helps to find out which species is of high and low priority in terms of their conservation status,” Dhakal added.
The Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation is working on assessing the list of mammals in both the common and protected lists under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1973. This is an important opportunity for Nepal’s leopards.
“Given the threat level on leopards both at the national and global levels, the status of leopards may go up from common to protected species,” Joint Secretary Dhakal said.
In the meantime, leopard and human conflicts as well as retaliation killings, will likely continue into the foreseeable future. Poaching and illegal trade of leopard parts do not show any sign of slowing down either. On Sunday, July 8, five people were arrested with leopard hide in Boudha, Kathmandu.