A conservation campaign in Pakistan has succeeded in reducing conflict between leopards and locals. Education and compensation are providing a safer environment for both humans and an endangered species.
The common leopard has become an uncommon sight in Pakistan.
Mohammed Waseem likes to wander along the narrow paths of the Ayubia National Park in Pakistan, in the early hours of the morning.
As the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) biologist knows, the best time to catch a glimpse of the near-threatened Asiatic leopard is just before sunrise.
Only 11 of the endangered predators can still be found in the 3,300 hectares reserve situated 80 kilometers from the Pakistani capital Islamabad.
Yet people are never far away – the park is bordered by seven major villages and three smaller towns, and is a recreation area for large numbers of tourists.
"In 2005 we had a leopard which became a man-eater. It attacked six women," says Waseem. This had never happened before. The conservation authority responded by trapping and killing the leopard, but the damage to the local human population was done.
Locals began independently hunting and killing other leopards in the area.
"Because the territory was suddenly free, leopards from other regions migrated to this area," says the biologist. "These leopards were much more aggressive than the locally born animals."
Leopards have been hunted to near extinction in Pakistan.
Simple solutions to defuse tensions
On his tours through the National Park, biologist Mohammed Waseem tries to mediate with the local population, and educate them on how to deal with the predators.
"Before, the elders knew that they must stand still to get away from a leopard unharmed. Now, however, they are all afraid and try to run away immediately," Waseem says.
The fleeing people awoke the hunting instinct of the big cats, who mistook them for escaping prey.
The WWF has started a project in order to defuse the conflict between humans and leopards. In regular education campaigns in schools and villages, Mohammed Waseem, as one of the project's leaders, explains the value of biodiversity in the region.
He also gives tips on what to do when confronted face-to-face with a leopard – don't run – and suggests ways of staying clear of the deadly animal.
For example, women should avoid going to the forest at dawn to collect firewood, because this is when the big cats are most active.
Instead, they should go after sunrise, when the animals are much less active. Everyone however, should avoid regions where the leopards raise their young.
Local worker Muhammid Ali has attended one of Waseem's lectures about what to do when meeting a leopard in the wild, but he remains skeptical.
"I have seen a leopard and was really scared. Some people tried to kill her. But if you kill a leopard, the forest rangers will punish you. You can go to prison."
Biologist Mohammed Waseem gives a lesson in behavior management to locals.
"In this region the major problem was that no one was compensated when a leopard killed their livestock. So that's why the leopards became hunted," Waseem says.
So the WWF led the charge to reintroduce a system of compensation for locals whose livestock are taken by wild animals.
Wassem says the conflict prevention program is bearing fruit and has already led to a "significant" reduction in the number of violent encounters between humans and leopards.
Indeed, according to the WWF, leopard attacks appear to have decreased as people hunt the animals less, which is a positive sign for a species of which there are believed to be only a handful left in Pakistan today.
Author: Jutta Schwengsbier (sp)
Editor: Nathan Witkop