Leopards in Crisis

Ravi Sharma Aryal specializes in Environmental Law with a focus on CITES implementation in Nepal and India. He is an active member of the Nepal Law Society, the Center for Environmental Law (IUCN) and has served as an expert member on different high level Environmental and Forestry Committees and Commissions. As a Legal Advisor to the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation he provided legal support to different departments including the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation and has been involved in many wildlife crime investigations as a Special Court Judge for Environmental Crime Prevention in the Annapurna Conservation Area, Nepal. At present he is Under Secretary in the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, Nepal. In 2004 he published his research of many years titled "Cites Implementation in Nepal and India - Law, Policy and Practice".
The Kathmandu Post published his article "Common Leopard in Crisis" on 8 January 2003, of which a revised excerpt is presented here.

The fate of the leopard is now being written by the poacher's bullet, making this graceful spotted cat a marked animal today. The alarming rate at which the population of the leopard is being decimated suggests that they may become extinct even earlier than the tiger.

A favored route for smuggling from Nepal and India is overland to Tibet where the bones are usually bartered for Shatoosh. Leopard skin depending on its size costs from 5,000 to 10,000 Rs [65 to 130 US$] apiece, while the international price for the same is said to be approx. 10,000 US$.

To implement the CITES each member country is obliged to designate scientific and management authorities and regulate species with their domestic regulation. The leopard is worldwide endangered and listed in Appendix I of CITES but the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1973 (NPWCA) in Nepal has not yet enlisted this animal in its protected list under Schedule I. Until a few years ago anyone could hunt this animal after getting licenses from the authorities and many foreigners used to come to Nepal to hunt leopards.

Leopard skins seized in Mustang, Nepal. Photo by courtesy of Ravi Sharma Aryal

While most conservationists agree that time is running out fast for the protection of the leopard, few are prepared to take cudgels for the protection of the spotted cat. The data on seizures of parts of tiger and leopard, TRAFFIC, shows that for one tiger killed, more than 5 leopards are poached.

On May 18, 2002, the Royal Nepal Army seized 22 leopard skins in Mustang headed to Tibet via Lo Manthang but their bones and other derivatives could not be traced yet, as the main trader is still absconding. This illegal trade originated from different parts of Nepal and was carried by ponies via Beni of Myagdi District towards Tibet being hidden in food supplies such as beaten rice and rice bags. The data reveal that there were several other seizures of leopard skins in the last 5 years in the mid hills including the Annapurna Conservation Area. It is noted that none of the agencies have made any study on the reason of trade until now. But leopard skins are in the illegal market in bordering areas with Tibet. Unfortunately, very little is being done to check this burgeoning illegal trade in the mountainous area, as there is no provision of anti-poaching units.

In Nepal, the increasing leopard-man conflict in mountainous areas, especially in community forests, is being presented as a justification for the elimination of such species. The false justification without scientific study on their population for the killing is being perpetuated through the media by incorrect information. Stories declaring leopards as 'villainous beasts' have become common in local newspapers. To play down this massacre of leopards, the man-animal conflict arising in the hills is being projected in ridiculous proportions. The crux is that it offers a convenient cover for the poaching of leopards for profit, and this is happening even in areas where there is no conflict. In reality, only a few man-eating leopards have ever been reported. While leopards frequently attack only livestock and other domesticated animals, they rarely resort to human beings. Even leopards living on the periphery of human habitations avoid direct human contact.

It is urgent to conduct a scientific study on the leopard population in Nepal. This study should also identify the causes of man-animal conflict, habitat destruction and the volume of leopard body parts in trade. The responsible agencies need to be aware of open illegal trade on wildlife in different places in the country and need to raid such places from time to time. Similarly, anti-poaching units need to be established in prone areas. Last but not least, the leopard needs to be included in Schedule I of the NPWCA 1973, respecting the international commitment. Further, the major important thing is the enforcement of laws by the respective agencies to protect such species from depletion. In Nepal, enforcement commitment of the respective agencies seems very weak. Thus, wildlife pressure groups need to make them aware of their duties to enforce laws to conserve our endangered species.

Three months later ...