In Nepal the word "Tiger" can refer to any of the wild cat species including the Forest Leopard (panthera pardus). This incredibly adaptive cat has been my focus for several years now and I'm striving to improve co-existence between people and the leopard...
I just want to dedicate a quick post to two young American researchers, Ellison Heil and Lauren Breynaert, who I had the great pleasure to spend time with in the Annapurna during the rewilding of the leopard Asa. I will be talking more soon about these two and their colleagues regarding marvelous fundraising efforts for earthquake relief after they left Nepal. Ellison also dedicated a section to my work in his research paper - On Conservation: The Role of Integrated Conservation Development Programs in the Annapurna Conservation Area - but for now I just want to paste something he wrote in the Acknowledgements section:
- Lastly a large growl to Jack and Asa for being the voices of the forest. When I am asked about seeing Asa in the jungles above Ghandruk, I simply respond in the words of Peter Matthiessen’s Snow Leopard
“ Have you seen the leopard? No! Isn’t that wonderful?” -
You nailed it Ellison.
To both of you, your smarts, humour, your good selves were a joy to be with. You came to grips very quickly with the issues in this country and rather than choosing to use the rose tinted glasses so many tourists do, you saw with eyes of bona fide researchers. You give me hope for the future...
Posts on this blog page are also (plus others) at Facebook.
A woman was taken by a tiger earlier today in the forest area near the elephant breeding centre a few kilometres away. It is well known there is a tigress with two cubs there and it seems it was in protection of her offspring she killed the woman as the body was not dragged or eaten. There is of course sadness and some will show anger as well but there is also a level of acceptance because these things happen. In the past I have interviewed both injured victims and family members of people killed, there is generally understanding. In Sumatra a woman who lost her husband to a tiger simply said to me that it was the fault of nothing. Compare this attitude to when a shark kills a human on the west Australian coast. The word cull crops up immediately... The big male tiger recently in this area close by was seen walking with a limp. An injured tiger can of course become desperate if it struggles to take natural prey. Once again, this is just the way it is and there is always risk, human/wildlife conflict is part of the fabric here, it just has to be managed in ways that are fair to both parties.
I'm using technology to observe the relationship between the leopard cubs and their handlers. It is critical to the success of the program that after a good health status is ascertained the cubs from that point only have contact with their main handler and backup and this isolation phase has been in place for many weeks now. In this case the main handler is Asis Gurung with wildlife technician Tika Ram Tharu providing physical assistance and consulting. My own role is technical backup and ongoing facilitation as we seek to establish a STAGE 1 facility. We are all in constant discussion and planning as well as always having to be conscious of STAGE 2 locations that need to be researched and surveyed to be suitable within the rewilding context.
The program is not an inexpensive exercise, the rewilding of the first leopard Asa ran into a cost of many thousands of dollars. The effort to raise the funds as well as perform as handler did take a toll on me so I am determined we have a far more streamlined process. The current unstable situation in the country is unfortunately hindering progress but the most important thing is that the cubs are in excellent health, are very wary of humans and stay hidden from them while at the same time maintaining the close bonds with their handlers.
There is a determination within the partner organizations, NTNC and WildTiger, that we do the best job possible. We do need support but I am confident that going forward this can develop into the world class program it needs to be so as to provide effective ecosystem replenishment.
Quite a few
people have messaged me of late saying they hope the monsoon relents soon. In fact the rainy season still has probably
more than a month to run and every drop is vital.
lost their lives to landslides yesterday, something that happens every monsoon
but the extra instability caused by the earthquakes has made this year more
dangerous. The fact the victims had
already lost their homes because of the quakes and were buried while living in
temporary shelters, adds extra sadness.
The rains often bring floods, and many roads (often barely usable jeep
tracks at the best of times) are disrupted as are walking trails. Even wildlife as powerful as elephants and
rhinos will not survive if in the wrong place at the wrong time.
however an absolute necessity. If it were to suddenly stop then countries like
Nepal could not survive. The seasonal
rains are the lifeblood providing food security and vital for water storage
build up both for drinking and power.
Ecosystems and economies are totally dependent on a robust evenly spread
precipitation, wildlife and people simply could not function without it and
that would mean devastating results globally.
the political and social instability combined with earthquake ramifications,
the monsoon this year has seemed like a necessary evil. I sit here writing this now while the rain
falls, it is both a beauty and a beast... and we need it to keep going for a
few more weeks yet despite the problems that will eventuate.
"We have reached the South Col in the constitution drafting process" - Baburam Bhattarai, Leader of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) said yesterday.
The South Col is the final camp before a summit attempt on Everest. It is a place where things get deadly serious, there is no guarantee of success and often there is tragedy... but there is a chance of reaching the top of the world.
Nepal is in the category of LDC (Least Developed Country) putting it on a par with Afghanistan and a few African States. At the moment it feels like the country is going backwards, there is confusion and remember, it wasn't that long ago Nepal was almost a failed state.
This is maybe the most critical juncture in Nepal's history. If it is ever to really progress, and that will take time as it is, the final climb to the summit has to be successful. Then, as all climbers know, there is the perilous journey back to Base Camp where healing and stability really begin...
From conservation and humanitarian standpoints (the two are tightly linked) there has to be a strong Base Camp in the form of a stable Government and a much more unified people.
Just a quick post while there's enough cyber grunt to publish it. Electricity and web connection are not strong points here. I'll have a more detailed report on the progress of leopard cubs Tika and Ram when I can but just wanted to say they are doing well, strong, healthy and behaving like young leopards.
Despite all the disruptions and problems here in Nepal (it just seems like a never ending story) as well as what seems to be continual personal challenges, from my own perspective my confidence and belief in this project has not wavered. The constant upheavals means plans are always thrown out the window but we are still moving forward, even if it is varying increments.
I have to admit this time last year while living with Asa in the high jungle that although it was as tough as hell at times at least I could just focus on what was in front of me. The turmoil here now means a whole fresh set of issues... but we wont give up, there's too much at stake and it is worth every effort to get it right.
Many thanks for the support, it makes a difference. Every cent (rupee) counts right now and yes, I am still hot, sweaty and a bit feverish but there's a fair bit of kick left in me yet. Somehow we will win this thing. More when I can, cheers Jack.
And just a quick note before we do lose electricity and net again, thanks for all the messages and emails of support. Yes I've been a bit feverish, probably some mosquito related thing again but will get through this. As soon as a few things are taken care of here I have to go to KTM anyway, I'll get a complete check up there. At the moment the strikes and now curfews in some areas make travel a stupid thing to do as it is.
Regarding everything that is going on, leaving is not an option, those who follow the work here will understand that. A conversation a few weeks ago with Asis about preempting the situation so that the leopard does not get to the critical state the tiger got to is a big motivation. We humans often don't act until we are bitten on the arse, we're not letting that be the case with this. The leopard is already under threat so action is needed. There are very good researchers here who understand what must be done... but we have to do it, we live in a world with too much talk.
The children you see in the other image need to understand these things. To "understand" means getting at least an adequate education. This is where humanitarian and conservation work are completed intertwined especially in a struggling place like Nepal which as I keep saying (and I do hope someone is listening) is such a vital place with regard to natural resources. If we get it wrong here the world is in even bigger trouble. This post has been updated at Facebook where other updates will follow.
There's different reports coming through on exactly how many police were killed in yesterday's attack in the west. What is known for sure is the a two year old child was killed in the conflict, a senior constable was burned to death and a couple of others taken out with knives and spears.
The image is of a demonstration in Gaur about 100km away from where I write this, there is now a curfew there. The demonstrations are based around the rights of the marginalized Tharu people with regard to the provinces being formed in the federal state, part of the ongoing Constitution saga.
Today marks four months since what has become known as the Great Earthquake on 25 April. There were hopes that the tragedies caused by the earthquakes may actually unify Nepal...those hopes have now faded away...
Just a quick post in case we lose the net again for a while but thanks for all the comments and messages re the last posts (on Facebook). I guess it's a matter of just the way it is being in a country that is struggling, a lot of stuff going on. I wrote to family a few weeks ago saying I wouldn't be back for a visit for some time yet and I have mentally conditioned myself to that. The image is Asa from just under a year ago when we lived in the Annapurna, the fact that project worked out the way it did and that the leopard is wild and free, well, that motivates me. I guess his struggle somehow represents to me the whole struggle here in that you have to have hope. So best to just keep going forward. Thanks for your support
A couple of weeks ago in Kathmandu I took this image while waiting to meet a contact near Durbar Square. A solemn young woman entered the room to say a small prayer.
In many ways it is indicative of the mood here. It is not really possible to describe. I find that even experiencing it and trying to understand it leaves only confusion, everyone I talk to feels the same way. A nation very used to hardship is struggling to make sense of things. The headlines today are not good as members of the Constituent Assembly team of one party resign in protest, there are continual strikes with sporadic outbreaks of violence. Human trafficking is raising its ugly head more and more as young women are taken advantage due to increased economic pressure caused by the earthquake. I could go on and on.
Yes, foreign aid is still coming in, often filtered to who knows where but the fact is the country does not need millions, it needs billions. It did before the earthquakes anyway. As I've mentioned before if things don't come improve here the world will suffer. A country so important as a water supply cannot be allowed to be in strife like this.
On a personal level I am finding it very hard to see those around me struggle. Feeling like this and not being in the best of health now myself, I would normally get out for a several weeks to freshen up mentally and physically but that is simply not possible as there is too much to be done. It is a matter of just trying to make a little progress each day.
I'm behind in replies to messages and sending out images, I'm going to spend the next few hours trying to catch up. I thank those sending messages of support and buying images. I get many questions and sometimes advice but to be honest trying to make sense of the situation here is folly, it is just better to get on with it and do some work.
I don't do selfies, unless there's a leopard on my head, and only then because it gives people an idea of how big a leopard paw is compared to the human face. In fact I don't even like having my picture taken or posted online unless it's really necessary. This thing is isn't about me, there's plenty enough ego in the world without me adding to it.
I've had a lot of supportive emails lately, thank you, I'm fine. Yes, it is hard here and very frustrating at times. Of course sometimes I wonder why I don't bugger off and get an easy job in a first world country... but I wont. Most of my posts aren't "happy" posts, they're real. There's plenty of fuzzy wuzzy photos of baby animals etc in other places, that's not my script.
My posts are trying to portray the big picture. Nepal is in strife and the real issue is that this country is highly important in a global sense as a water source. I'll be writing more on that soon as well as the reasoning how before the earthquakes there seemed to be two Nepals consisting of the tourist bubble and the real one.
Trying to drive projects here is difficult but the motivation is strong to help as well as try and be a voice for the marginalized, both wildlife and people. From a conservation standpoint they are completely and utterly connected although astonishingly, in 2015 there are many people in our so called connected world who don't understand that.
The first image is a shy little girl receiving some very basic school stationary from Chiran (second image). The third image is two leopard cubs who should be with their mother, they aren't... so we are rewilding them for their sake and the sake of the environment. Like the little girl they are marginalized. Maybe I'm misguided but I truly believe the marginalized are worth fighting for especially in a country as geographically important as this one.
WildTiger is getting a shake up. I'm bringing in fresh blood and an evolved approach. Memorandums of Understandings are being drawn up. It's a hell of a lot of work and I have to sell a lot of images to raise the necessary funds, unfortunately just plain straight awareness does not pay the bills, there is no money tree but there are plenty of other trees we have to stop being cut down (metaphor)... for all our sakes...
We caught up with these five children on the way back down to the jeep after leaving Simjung village. They attend the school built by WildTiger and the walk home takes about an hour for them. The trek to the school takes a lot longer as is uphill and conditions can be slippery and hazardous. They hold umbrellas to fend off monsoon rains. In mountain areas I have come across children who walk three hours to school... and three hours home again.
Nepal still does not have a Constitution. Not surprisingly the deadline has again been missed as agreement and compromise go lacking in a nation where there is little unity at every level of society. There is a strong feeling that even if the Draft is written it will be pseudo, giving too much room for readdress at a time when a clear vision is needed.
There will always be hardship here, the geography of the place sees to that. However, it could be easier than it is if differences were put aside to at least future proof for children like the ones you see in this image.
For someone like me trying to act on a vision for a big cat rescue and rewilding centre, also a future proofing action, it's becoming less clear and increasingly harder.
It often feels as if Nepal lurches from one crisis to another. Sure, I could post images of happy little leopard cubs all day long but that would be denying the reality. My reality is that for five days now I have not been able to get to an important meeting because political activists have banned road use. Cars, buses, jeeps risk being stoned, burned, badly damaged. There is no compensation so people cannot afford to take risks. The police and military have made many arrests of strike enforcers but a damaged vehicle is a major blow here.
The current situation is a legacy of the civil war which lasted ten years until 2006. It is still very fresh in people's minds as strikes (known as bandas) were a major part of that period when thousands lost their lives. At this moment tension is building as the long awaited Constitution is once again under threat of not been written.
Life here is difficult enough due to the strong hand of nature in one of the most challenging landscapes in the world. A fragmented society only makes things harder. From a humanitarian and conservation standpoint the barriers have major consequences. The effort required to keep projects on track becomes more draining, one can feel very isolated in these circumstances.
Many thanks to those who are helping us with the rebuilding of the community supported school in Simjung Village. The Remote Area Aid (R2A) page at wildtiger.org will be updated soon as will the rest of the site. Yesterday marked sixteen weeks since the first devastating quake, a day that changed everything. Simjung is very near the epicentre and while there is still a lot to be done we're looking forward to the progress to be made in these children's lives. A positive aspect to the help is how the kids will have the chance to learn through the WildTiger premise of wildlife, habitat, people... more on this soon.
The reply: "Actually my ride is a pair of tightly laced trail running shoes ready to scoot"
For those worried about my sanity... er... I mean safety (and I know you are mum, you don't have to pretend you're not) there were about twenty metres of fast flowing river between us. That water barrier is a good thing to have when being stared down by a rhino.
The image was taken during my early morning walk looking for big cat sign. These walks, although there is always reason behind them, set up my day. It's not easy here at the best of times but strikes are making things more difficult, the Constitution is due but there is plenty of protest, not enough compromise at such a critical time in Nepal's juncture. When you're trying to facilitate something as complex and stressful as a leopard rewilding program, strikes really don't help.
I usually take these walks alone but anyone who does come along has to be a fast runner and good tree climber because rhinos can be dangerous customers. Keep the right distance, show respect and things are usually ok because rhinos and cattle egrets like all wildlife like to keep things simple. I wish my own species could do the same...
I met this little guy in the Simjung area. I showed him photos of tiger, leopard, snow leopard, he was fascinated. School is a long walk for him and there are many days he cannot get there, the slope is too steep and dangerously slippery in monsoon. He wants to know more about the tiger, it's important he does... so we will make that happen.
I arrived back in Chitwan yesterday, big cat focused and I'll have more on the Leopard Rewilding Program soon. However a part of me is still in Simjung where these images were taken. I wrote a few days ago under a heading which included "not tears, only smiles"... I realize now that wasn't accurate, it's something in between, I saw many of these faces in my dreams last night, stoic, tough but tired, truly tired...
For the umpteenth time Nepal's Constitution is due to be written. The Prime Minister has called for an end to the violence associated with protests against the proposed State System. This is not a united country, it has struggled for a long time with factors of fragmentation including over one hundred different languages, countless political parties and a complex caste system along with the most challenging landscape on our planet.
No one is trying to sugar coat it, Nepal has to unite or the struggle will continue. Dealing with issues such as earthquakes and a tough climate in this Himalayan nation are not helped by a fragmented society. It can change but everyone has to really want that change.
I've got a lot on right now but I'll post about yesterday's events soon. Briefly though, it was an epic day, really tough but really worth it as we got equipment into the school at earthquake ravaged Simjung Village. You can get an idea of some of the terrain by the fact you can't even see the two trailing porters as they carried in school tables and benches... and these things were heavy, damn heavy, solid timber that will last for many years.
The second image is sobering. Had the earthquake occurred on any day than Saturday these kids would have been crushed, their school was turned to rubble.
But now they have a school again and thank you to everyone who is helping us with this. There's still a lot to do and another shake two days ago caused a lot of fear. However the resilience of these mountain kids, it puts so much in perspective.
My connection with Nepal goes back many years but there are two dates recently which have been pivotal, the meeting with the leopard Asa on 4 February 2014 and the 25 April first earthquake this year. In many ways the two morphed yesterday as we sat in a little school in the remote village of Simjung and talked of tiger, leopard, snow leopard and life in this incredibly important country, one of the great watersheds on our planet.
I woke up sore this morning, many hours in jeeps and trekking into Asa territory meant tired muscles and a mind that needed coffee. There was also blood all over the bed. The leech you see in the first image was one I extracted from my back as I passed through Leopard Camp (2nd image), I suspect that it was ultimately the cause of the bleeding, it can take hours to stop in the first place and will often start again. This particular leech isn't that big but it's actually the small ones that cause me the most trouble. I use several methods to ward them off but the problem is I'm moving quickly and often have camera gear meaning my hands aren't free quickly.
The clearing where you see Leopard Camp is not typical of the terrain I'm in when maintaining cameras in Asa's territory. Most of it is thick jungle which at this time of the year, monsoon, is very lush with a lot of wet ground vegetation, ideal for leeches. Different species mean different tactics however and they'll also inhabit trees. I've had leeches bite me everywhere... and I pretty much mean everywhere... but legs and feet cop it the most. When I put my socks in a bucket this morning the water turned red.
It was a hard day, upwards of twelve hours, just over five of which were in jeeps. Travelling through landslide country isn't easy on the nerves, jeep drivers in the mountains have dangerous work. Where a slide has been cleared off the road and two jeeps meet, only one will go through at a time, just in case. I'm usually sharing a jeep with locals, chickens, bags of rice, all sorts... but we all go quiet when we go through areas where landslides have hit, it's usually a narrow mud track with a wall of broken rock and dirt on one side, a sheer drop on the other.
Sometimes when the jeep has gone as far it can go I'll end up walking with locals and mules carrying supplies to outlying villages. These mules are worked up and down trails all day long, it's a hard life as it is also for the guys working them, check out the footwear in the third image.
Once I'm into the jungle I move as quickly and as quietly as I can. Depending on camera locations it can take several hours trekking and of course half that is up... and up and up and up. Hardly anyone goes into the jungle at this time of the year (the leeches see to that) so trails are overgrown and visibility is often poor. However I know the area well, I lived there, with a leopard.
And it is the leopard I am there for. I know I will not see him in the flesh, Asa is wild and free now, he does not want or need the contact. Several times in the last few weeks I have wondered if he is watching me...
Sometimes I get images from the camera traps. In the fourth image I've cropped out the data, care has to be taken, leopard skins are worth a lot of money. Seeing Asa in these images brings back a lot of memories but I stay focused on the big picture, the plight of his species, a mysterious cat in a struggling country.
I've left a trail of blood from Leopard Camp to the last part of my journey. I say sorry to the jeep driver, he laughs, he knows what I do and a bit of blood on the floor is the least of his worries. On the way home as the light lessens it's just the two of us, we don't talk about landslides or leopards, it's usually family and football, anything to distract from the physicality of our work, we're both tired but I keep up the chat, just quietly, it's better when jeep drivers don't fall asleep on the job. No complaints, just suck it up and get on with it.
It's been a tough week. Bless you Ellen, just want you to know Asa, the Leopard of Hope is doing ok...
Tomorrow it's more time in jeeps as Chiran, Binod and I drive to meet Suresh and a gang of porters before setting off by foot to carry in furniture and other supplies for the school we've built in Simjung. At this stage the carry should take a couple of hours but who knows. Nature is dictating everything.
This post is also at Facebook if you'd like to leave messages. Many thanks for all the messages regarding the recent passing of our great friend, supporter of WildTiger and what we stand for, Ellen Ammerman. We all take strength from knowing her. Life goes on. Sometimes I shake my head in disbelief at the struggles that exist here in Nepal, I really wonder. Then there are other times when the human spirit, the smile of a child, the magnificence of the jungles, mountains, all within them... those things too make me wonder, in a good way... Jai Bagh and thank you for your support.
This post is also at Facebook where you can comment.
I took the image on 25 March 2014. It was exactly seven weeks after I started caring for Asa the Leopard of Hope, which amazingly is exactly eighteen months ago today... 4 February 2014 to 4 August 2015.
I had planned to write that today was significant because of that milestone in Asa's life, a cause for celebration now that the leopard is wild and free.
Now, with the sudden passing of our dear friend Ellen, we need to reflect in a different way, something that with so many challenges of late here in Nepal, is part of our spirit.
Ellen showed immediate support for Asa as soon as the situation arose, many of you have followed through these blogs what was an intense time for the leopard and I as we teamed up in the wild. Ellen played a big part in this because although this was their only meeting she would email me every few days asking "how is my little buddy?" to which I would normally reply that he was a wild one getting wilder. The fact that Ellen had traveled around the world from the USA with Asa being a big motivation for that still makes me smile.
During this brief meeting Asa, being what he is, his very nature, well, he hissed at Ellen, very typical because believe me, right from the word go Asa had a spirit that just wanted be to be free, to be wild. Ellen exclaimed in her lovely drawled accent "oh my, well I guess that was my fault for getting so close but he is just so beautiful!"... well Ellen, despite the fact he hissed I know he thought you were beautiful.
We all did. We still do.
Thank you Ellen, for being you, from me, a leopard, from everyone. You are a free spirit and we love you. Rest in Peace and Jai Bagh.
This post is also at Facebook if you wish to comment.
It is with the deepest sorrow I write of the passing of our dear Ellen Ammerman, a true friend, a true sister, a true wildlife protector, a truly beautiful person. Ellen was with us here in Nepal just a few weeks ago. Ellen came here this time to give support and love to Som G.C., his wife Kalpana and their two beautiful children, a family whose lives were turned upside down by the earthquakes. The impact Ellen had and the help she has given means this family can go forward in their lives.
That was Ellen through and through.
Ellen has been a true supporter of WildTiger, a part of us. I have just been in Kathmandu finalizing a position for Hemant, another brother she loved so much, she would have been so proud of his new role in the anti-poaching battle, something she believed in. I was so looking forward to telling her as even from her home in the USA she was always right there with us.
Ellen came to see Asa, the Leopard of Hope, when he was just a young cub. They met briefly and from that point on Ellen continually supported my efforts to rewild Asa. The leopard is free now, wild... which is what Ellen wanted and what she helped achieve.
Ellen loved wildlife, Ellen supported wildlife, Ellen was a wildlife person.
Look at her smile in the photograph with Bindu. They had only met the night before but already were sisters. Bindu has said to me so many times since:
"Oh Ellen is so friendly and supportive, Ellen is so loving"
That was Ellen through and through.
Soon our WildTiger family will plant a tree at Chitwan, a place she loved, a place she will always be belong to along with the tiger, the leopard, the sloth bear... and those elephants, you so loved those elephants... many, many birds.
You are such a special lady, you will always be with us and we will fight even harder now for what you believed in, we promise you that.