The One That Got Away



Posted on 01 July 1998  | 
Jamalabad, Pakistan: When Ulfat Karim recently discovered an unwanted guest on his land in this a small village in Pakistan's Northern Areas, his immediate reaction was to protect his livestock by catching the intruder. But then he discovered that it was a snow leopard.

Renowned for both its rarity and its ferocity, the snow leopard is found in 12 countries, stretching from the Central Asian Republics to Mongolia. It prefers rocky mountains, arid and semi-arid shrubland, and grassland or steppe - though sometimes it is found in open coniferous forest. Like the lion and the tiger, the snow leopard is at the top of the food chain, so if it flourishes so does the surrounding ecosystem.

But the animal is on the Red Data List of endangered species and Helen Freeman, founder and president of the International Snow Leopard Trust (ISLT), explains why.

The snow leopard is a notable example of how not all species are created equal, she says. Some are more prone to extinction than others. The snow leopard is few in number, large-bodied, with a low population growth, and its habitat is becoming increasingly fragmented - all characteristics that promote the early disappearance of a species. But perhaps the most important factor in the survival of a species is its relationship with man. Although the world now values this elusive creature, it is still a nuisance for those communities in its vicinity. A hungry snow leopard does not distinguish between wild and domestic animals. Sheep and goats, as well as cattle, horses, donkeys, camels, and even dogs have been killed to satisfy its appetite.

Reconciling the needs of the communities with those of the snow leopard is proving difficult. Since livestock represents wealth, it is not surprising that farmers have killed snow leopards to prevent losses. But more enlightened attitudes are emerging, and Ulfat Karim chose to protect rather than to kill the predator.

Two of my sheep were dead, and I found the snow leopard wrestling with a third, he said. They say the snow leopard becomes inebriated at the sight and smell of blood, and unaware of what is happening around it. I hit it on the head and wrapped my shirt round it until my brother came. We tied it up and kept it until a makeshift cage was built.

For four days Ulfat Karim's family fed the cat 10-12 kilograms of meat - including the animals he had killed and others that died later. I realised that I couldn't bring my sheep back to life, but I could limit any further damage, he said.

Karim is a member of the Khunjerab Villages Organization (KVO), set up to protect animal species in the buffer zone round the Khunjerab National Park. The KVO reports any illegal hunting and also aims to convince others of the benefits of protecting wildlife. When other members heard of the snow leopard, they came to ensure that it was safe.

WWF-Pakistan was also contacted and a small team was sent to observe the leopard in captivity. Four days after its capture, arrangements were made for the animal's release and the whole village congregated at the back of Ulfat's house. When the animal was given its freedom, 15 kilometres from where it had been caught, villagers chased it as far into the buffer zone as possible, hoping they would prevent its return to prey on their livestock.

Basit Khan, WWF-Pakistan's Coordinator for the Northern Areas, points out that there was no direct benefit to the villagers from their action, but he believes the incident should set an example to others as a sensible conservation measure.

For this to happen, however, cannot be the only incentive. Qurban Jan, Secretary General of the KVO, says compensation must be made available to farmers who suffer losses, otherwise the next animal to wander on to their property will not be treated with the same tolerance.

* Omayma Khan is Communications Manager, Northern Areas, WWF-Pakistan.

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