Leopards in Nepal — A National Treasure Neglected

The Wildlife Watch Group based in Kathmandu, Nepal, published this article in its monthly publication Wildlife Times in April 2010.

You and I have our favorite foods, just like anybody else -- and so do leopards. In Bardia National Park they prefer chital to wild boar and langur. In this area, male leopards consume about 4.3 kg of meat, and a female with cubs about 4 kg per day. In the Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve they prefer barking deer and wild boar to pika and serow. In both habitats they are much less interested in other occurring wildlife and domestic livestock, on which they prey only occasionally. Scat samples collected in Shivapuri-Nagarjun National Park indicate they feed on goats as much as on wild boar, but they still favour barking deer by far. The major part of their diet consists of wild prey species, more challenging to catch, but apparently more delicious. That's about all we know about habitat-specific prey preferences and the feeding ecology of leopards in Nepal.
The leopard is believed to be an adaptable species capable of surviving in different habitats and even in proximity to humans. Therefore, it receives much less attention from researchers and conservationists than any other big cat. In 38 years of wildlife research, a mere nine leopards have been studied in the Terai jungles, where tiger field research has its roots. In the scope of one of the earliest tiger research projects in Chitwan National Park, John Seidensticker and Mel Sunquist fitted six leopards with radio-collars (1973-76), and for several months meticulously tracked their movements in the north-eastern part of the park. Their results determined that only 4 out of 6 survived in the course of their observation. One female was poisoned; another female disappeared and was presumed dead. Two young dispersing leopards died before they reached the age of 2: one presumably poisoned by villagers and the other’s cause of death remains a mystery as only his bleached bones were found. Yet, their findings on leopard home ranges, ecological separation between tigers and leopards, reproduction and early maternal behavior, and dispersal pattern of three young leopards provided the first baseline data on leopard ecology in Nepal. Concerned about their survival rate, they recommended monitoring leopard populations at many other sites and under different habitat conditions to know if the Chitwan situation is the general trend.
In 1988, Charles McDougal reported high leopard mortality in Chitwan National Park owing to confrontations between tigers and leopards. He explained that leopards are not common in habitat where tiger density is high, but are sandwiched between prime tiger habitat inside the protected area and cultivated village land outside. With the increase of tiger density, only peripheral habitat remained available for leopards, and the population had trouble replacing itself. Conservation efforts worked well for tigers, but obviously not for leopards.
It took another ten years before leopards became the subject of field research again - in the framework of a tiger research project carried out in Bardia National Park. The study area was limited to a block of 105 km2 in the southwestern part of the park. At the time, five leopards co-existed with 20 tigers in the area. During 1998-2001, Morten Odden and Per Wegge radio-collared and tracked three of the resident leopards for 3-26 months. Their findings on their spacing and activity patterns, kill rates and food consumption, and predator-prey relationship were largely based on the monitoring of two leopards, as one had disappeared after 3 months of tracking. Orphaned leopard from Bardia National Park

Orphaned leopard from Bardia National Park, now resident in a zoo.

Although the study reports of these five renowned wildlife biologists represented only side effects of their extensive tiger-focused research, they contributed baseline knowledge about characteristics of leopard behavioural systems that has not been advanced since then. All we know today about how leopards respond to composition and distribution of prey in Nepal stems from studies in the riverine forests and grasslands of the Terai.
In 2004, the WWF Nepal Program provided funding for a status survey of leopards in Nepal. But the project team mainly reviewed secondary information i.e. research articles, books, reports, dissertations and newspaper accounts on leopard-related incidents in the country. Their field visits were limited to discussions with personnel of Chitwan and Shivapuri National Parks, forest officers and community forest user groups of Chitwan, Kathmandu, Lalitpur, Bhaktapur and Kavrepalanchowk Districts. Their conclusion was that leopards are present in 73 districts, but are threatened everywhere due to poaching, expanding human exploitation of habitable areas and ensuing conflict with humans and wild competitors.
Subsequent leopard-related field work ranged from 15 days to a few months of leopard sign surveys in the mid-hills of Nepal. In 2005, Suresh Basnet recorded 52 leopard signs in the Shivapuri National Park and collected scat for diet analyses. He estimated the presence of five leopards in the 144 km2 area, four of them adult and one cub. In 2006, Yadav Ghimirey recorded leopard signs in the 72 km2 Kunjo VDC of Mustang District up to an elevation of 2934 m, but without indicating abundance of leopards in this area. In the summer of 2008, Achyut Aryal surveyed 256 km2 in the Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve in the scope of his research on blue sheep. He collected 147 leopard scats but did not estimate leopard abundance. None of the three researchers had camera traps or field equipment other than binoculars at their disposal.
In not one of the remaining 11 protected areas in Nepal has research been conducted on leopards. Since spring 2003 leopard-related newspaper and magazine articles published in Nepal have far exceeded the number of scientific reports of 34 years. Some of them covered orphaned cubs, and leopards killed in rural areas as a result of conflicts with people. But most of them reported on confiscated leopard body parts. Until 2008, the number of skins seized in Nepal alone amounted to 787, some originating from India without doubt. Nepal is known to be the key smuggling route for wildlife products from India to Tibet, including leopard skins and bones. Efforts have been undertaken to curb poaching, and several wildlife traders have been arrested since 2006. But the leopard remains a data-deficient species in Nepal. We know nothing about population status in the country, let alone conservation needs of this enigmatic big cat. Let’s reverse this neglect, and actively rally to the call of F.W. Champion: "May the day be far distant when the name of the leopard will have to be added to the long list of wild animals that have been exterminated by the hand of man."
I thank John Seidensticker for sending his thrilling articles about tigers and leopards in the Terai; and Aimée Junker and Eric Wilson for valuable comments to this account.