Saturday, January 30, 2016

Kathmandu’s big cats

With the Capital rapidly expanding outwards, conflict with the wild animals of its outlying forests is rising

Jan 30, 2016- If leopard sightings in the bustling metropolis that is Kathmandu was once a rare event that sparked an elaborate media fanfare, the novelty is fading rather quickly. It’s no longer surprising to discover a wild cat prowling through the streets and alleys, and hiding in bathrooms and bedrooms in the Capital.

Recently, the residents of a New Baneshwor neighbourhood, one of the most densely populated areas in Kathmandu, received an early morning visit from a big cat. The animal is believed to have travelled during the night all the way from the Shivapuri forests following the Bagmati River; before ending up in a toilet--where it was found. “It is highly unlikely that the female leopard was being kept as pet by the residents, as it is not easy to keep a wild cat indoors for very long,” said a source at the Central Bureau of Investigation (CIB),who were involved in investigating the Baneshwor incident.

In recent years, leopard encounters in the Valley have become increasingly frequent, especially in areas that share boundaries with national parks and community forests. There have also been incidences where the leopards entering human settlements have attacked, injured and even killed people or vice-versa.

Once densely forested and with sparse settlements, Kathmandu Valley’s outskirts served as a prime habitat for leopards. But now, with the Capital rapidly expanding outwards, conflict with these animal residents of the outlying forests was only but inevitable. The District Forest Office has already rescued seven leopards from different areas in Kathmandu this Nepali-calendar year alone. Data from the past five years suggest that around 10- 15 leopards are rescued from Kathmandu settlements on average every year. And with other cities in the country continuing to expand as well, the human-wildlife conflict is fast becoming a contested issue. In one such incident, last year in Kaski, five leopards were killed in the span of a week by locals.

Indra Sapkota, Kathmandu’s District Forest Officer (DFO), says it is almost certain that animal habitats have been encroached and fragmented by human activities; this has forced wild cats, and other animals, to adapt in new ways.” There are two scenarios that could help us understand why these wild catsare coming out of their habitats and into contact with human settlements more than ever before,” says Sapkota. The first, according to him, is the improvement of the natural habitat, including those of predator species. The relative growth of community forests might have led to the increase in the leopard population.

But are there really more leopards in Kathmandu’s outlying jungles today? Sapkota maintains that there is yet to be a study that could tell us precisely the distribution of leopards in the jungles surrounding the Valley. “But given the increasing number of rescues in recent years and reports of increasing sightings by authorities and locals in and around wooded areas, it is likely that the population is thriving,” said Sapkota.

There also have been suggestions that the increase in population of other species in community forests adjoining prime leopard habitats, including Shivapuri-Nagarjun National Park and the Chandragiri forests, may have attracted leopards to migrate to community forests near human settlements. “Leopards are the dominant carnivores in the forests surrounding Kathmandu and neighbouring districts and are highly territorial,” Sapkota explains, “The intra-species competition for food and territory causes the displaced, particularly the older and weaker leopards, to come out into human settlements to search for prey.”

Likewise, the second scenario suggests that though the habitats have expanded--linking dense jungles with nearby community forests and providing a better connecting route-- it also has led to the increase of human activities in forests, disturbing the natural habitat.

How-ever, without proper scientific rese-arch, these scenarios are only based on assumptions. “Science-based research on leopards, their distribution, behaviour and co-existence with humans is the need of the hour,” says Sarita Jnawali, Project Manager at the Central Zoo, which serves as a refuge for rescued wild animals, including leopards.

Jack Kinross, a conservationist at the Wild Tiger Conservation Research and Development, said,  “Based on my research so far I feel leopard behaviour is changing for a number of reasons, all human related. But the major and most serious change is they are changing their prey base because their natural prey is decreasing and ‘urban prey’ such as dogs is readily available. Unfortunately human fatalities can be linked to this change as well.”

Human-wildlife conflict is increasingly becoming a serious challenge for wildlife conservationists in the country. The reports from Mustang where a snow leopard killed a herd of goats, to an elephant rampage in Jhapa destroying houses and agricultural land, to tigers and rhinos killing people in Chitwan, the aggressive encounters between humans and wild animals have been on the rise. “One of the most daunting challenges we are facing right now is the mitigation of the increasing human-wildlife conflict in areas that are close to protected areas, wildlife reserves and forests,” says Siddhartha Bajracharya, programme director at the National Trust for Nature Conservation.

According to him, Nepal has had an unprecedented success in protecting rhinos and tigers and the efforts have been recognised around the world. The success, however, has been a double-edged sword. “Proper measures to mitigate the risks related with human-wildlife altercations and improvement of the habitats should be prioritised while developing policies and programmes in the conservation sector,” Bajracharya said.

If not, he says, big cats in bathrooms, in all likeliness, will continue to remain a problem for the foreseeable future.


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