The ghostly image is of police in riot gear entering the supernarket soon after I had done a sweep of the bottom floor checking if the leopard which had entered the premises twelve hours earlier was still there. I had gone in alone because I knew that if the wild cat had panicked it was better that there was just one of us there. I was prepared to take a hit as experience has taught me that in a case like this the leopard would only be acting in self defence, it would make an attack and then try to escape as quickly as possible and it was imperative we gave it space.
I had only a small piece of timber to help fend the leopard off should it come at me but I was confident in my ability to react. Time living with a leopard in the jungle had taught me many things. Later I borrowed one of the riot shields as I inspected one of the last cavities on the bottom floor but as I had suspected, the leopard had left the building, it had escaped unseen after we had blackened the area a few hours earlier.
At around 5am after a vigil of over 12 hours I informed the security forces that I was certain the leopard had left. We did a room by room check, clearing the way systematically. This worked well but earlier during the whole ordeal there had been times when the whole thing seemed out of control. Those of you who followed my brief posts on Facebook will know that at one stage I had to get angry to get things running more smoothly. Crowd management and a lack of understanding of leopard behaviour were real issues, I repeatedly had to plea for calm and allowance for a strategy I was confident would work.
The problem was that because it had taken so long to get that understanding there was a chance that if the leopard had stayed holed up we would run out of time, our window of opportunity was small. However at about 1.30am I heard glass breaking and although I could not be certain I knew it was possible it was the leopard breaking free. With no darting equipment available I had suggested a soft sedation using bait but we could not locate a vet in time so setting the scene so the leopard could make its own way out was the only option.
It had all seemed surreal at times and there were some bizarre moments during the whole episode. I virtually wrote a chapter for my book but as we sat round a fire on the street when it had all finished, cold and exhausted, I could not help but think the supermarket leopard was symbolic of what is happening in this country right now, the feeling that in many ways Nepal is out of control. While I was in the supermarket alone I could smell the animal, it was out of its place, I could sense its fear. While it's good the leopard escaped it was sobering that it was the second conflict in just a week here in the Kaski, the first leopard not so fortunate, it was beaten to death. In the supermarket incident a forest officer was hospitalized after confronting the leopard and the cat itself had sustained injuries while breaking through glass.
A long debrief the next day with District Forest Officer Prabhat Sapkota had ended with him saying to me that it would happen again soon, more conflicts, they are becoming ever increasing in the Kaski, in the country in general. That same day another leopard had been rescued from urban Kathmandu.
I'm about to leave Pokhara to head back to Chitwan where the first rehab post has been built in a remote confidential area and the two nearly nine month old cubs under the Leopard Rewilding Program will continue their rehabilitation at the post. I'll have more details on this soon but we need to be sparing in what we publish for security reasons. Yesterday, in support of two friends here in Pokhara, Ram and Raj Giri, I visited their 102 year old grandfather in hospital where he has been unconscious for nearly a week. He had never had medicine in his first one hundred years and I was amazed how young and strong he looked even in his sleeping state. He lives among the four generations at home with Ram and Raj, the two brothers have their parents and children there in the home of 16 people. In the hospital the 102 year old man did not look in place, I thought of the leopard and strangely I remembered another incident as I looked out the window to a spot where three dead leopards had been found poisoned near the hospital two years earlier.
Everything seemed incongruous. Leopards are strong, this man still had a strength about him yet while age may have finally caught up with him, the scene did not feel right.
In Nepal at the moment there are many scenes and situations like this. The earthquakes followed by the madness of the current political/social crisis have left an already struggling country on its knees, there is simply too much unnecessary struggle.
I cannot help the grandfather of Ram and Raj more than with prayer that he has peace. The leopard situation however is something I can and am doing something about, this will continue. As I've mentioned before human/leopard conflicts have resulted in too many deaths on both sides. The supermarket leopard incident could have had a far worse outcome and we have to be prepared. I'm advocating training and equipment in high conflict areas within the concept of a Leopard Task Force.
It's developing but there is no time to waste...