Monday, January 25, 2016

The supermarket leopard, the 102 year old man... symbols of a country just holding on...

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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...

Monday, January 18, 2016

Despite everything, progress re #leopard #rescue #rehabilitation and conflict #research...

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If you are ever going to read one of my rants it should be this one. It's not a time for backslapping but gains are being made.  Sometimes in tiny increments, sometimes giant strides.  Endless hours in jungles, mountains... orphaned cubs, dead leopards... wild leopards in wild surroundings... and meetings, many meetings, in offices, coffee shops, airport car parks, bus stops, guest houses, tents and on dark jungle evenings in remote villages and camps.

The first rehabilitation post is about to be built in a remote confidential location.  After several delays, leopard cubs Tika and Ram will continue their rehabilitation there under the supervision of Dr Asis Gurung with assistance from the Biodiversity Conservation Centre team with assisting handler Tikaram Tharu also key to their progress.  This new post is modeled off the strategy I used with the leopard Asa at Leopard Camp in the Annapurna but with improvements in infrastructure, strategy and particularly in support.  The post will also have application for research and anti-poaching in the area.

A second post is mooted for the west of Nepal and I am sure this will go ahead.  Right now I am in the Kaski where there is a serious problem with many conflict situations and leopard deaths in the last few years.  I am in discussion with District Forest Officer Prabhat Sapkota and a rescue/rehab centre has been approved in principle by the government.

In other parts of the country particularly in the far west as well as in Kavre (just examples) there are villagers living in fear as there have been many human fatalities after leopard attacks.  Young children are most at risk in these areas, I hope people have finally understood when I've stated in my blogs, particularly in the last two years, that there has to be a lot of sensitivity around these issues.  It's all very well someone thousands of miles away behind the safety of a laptop calling these animals cute when the sheer reality for those living among leopards can mean a lot of fear. Yes they are magnificent, truly magnificent but wild leopards are serious animals, often very dangerous and unpredictable.

 Conflict mitigation research and improvements are ongoing, that will never end but it requires both short term and long term solutions that are effective not slap dash.  There's no point using practices that leopards will quickly habituate to thus making the situation even more serious in the near future.

There is a lot at stake.  The leopard's range is far and wide unlike their rock star relatives the tiger and snow leopard which inhabit narrower and fragmented habitats.  All these great cats are key umbrella species, ecosystems depend on them.  Their relationship with each other and their relationship with us, these things have to be better understood for more effective conservation and management.

As I wrote in the first sentence this is not a time for cheers, there is too much to be done.  The current situation here in Nepal has of course made things even more difficult, I've got to admit sometimes there have been days when I wonder how the hell we can pull it all off... but it only needs a second to reflect on the marginalization that the leopard is enduring as well as many thousands of people living in leopard habitats and then the realization strikes that despite the magnitude of the task we have to keep going.  So a Task Force structure is on the table but action has to continue and increase...

This initiative is a collaboration of the Department of Forests, Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, the National Trust for Nature Conservation (including the Biodiversity Conservation Centre and the Annapurna Area Conservation Project) and WildTiger Conservation Research and Development.  Independent Nepali NGOs and researchers are also being consulted as well as there being constant communications internationally.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The complex mosaic of big cats, their habitat and the people who live there...

Here in Nepal there are earthquake ravaged areas where people are freezing in tents or worse, so more and more trees get cut down in leopard territory.  On the Terai, like the rest of the country the blockade has meant gas shortages, more and more trees are cut down in tiger territory...

I said to Judy from WWF yesterday there are so many dots to join.  The word mosaic came to mind and then last night I came across this image of the mosaic tiger I had created years ago, it fits my thinking right now.

There’s been days lately when I wish I’d chosen an easier path, maybe rocket science, surely not as complex as this situation.  The last few years have shown me more than ever that it’s all going to get even more complicated regarding the way we can co-exist with big cats.  Veteran Nepali conservationist Dr Shant Raj Jnawali said to me yesterday that he felt that 80% of serious rescue and conflict situations were leopard related.  When you consider that every year people also lose their lives in conflict with tiger, elephant and rhino, well, that 80% is a big figure.

What is an answer today may not be the answer tomorrow.  In that regard we have to try and stay one step ahead, not an easy task in a country which is struggling in so many ways.  My help has been asked for in another country where tiger is the main conflict species and the animal itself is struggling to exist.   I will visit there in a few months in the hope that what we are seeking to apply here may help as well as learning from that locality.  And that’s the thing, every region has its own set of issues but one commonality with Asian big cat habitat is that the people living there are generally struggling... back to my point in the first two sentences.

Poverty leading to poaching and then development leading to habitat encroachment... add to that the issues of big cat rescue, rehabilitation and rewilding, each highly complex in themselves.  Academics, activists and keyboard warriors can jump up and down as much as they like but believe me at ground level it’s not rocket science, it’s something much more complex with the lives of people and wildlife at stake...

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Helping Hand...

The image was taken while I was working with Asa in the early stages of his rewilding.  James Robinson did a fantastic job recording Asa's reaction to many situations.  James is a camouflage expert but Asa is a leopard, so of course the young feline would at times sense James's presence. James was so professional during these moments, it gave me valuable data and feedback.  At the same time I would give Asa a helping hand, reassuring him everything was ok.

A year ago today I wrote along the lines of to know that a wild animal is where it is supposed to be, living wild, living free, is to know one's humanity.  Rewilding is a controversial subject for many reasons.  We are not all on the same page yet.  I am convinced of the strategy used for Asa and some reassuring emails from different organizations dealing with big cats in different countries are making me more determined to keep expanding and evolving this concept, wherever that may be.

I'm looking forward to being back in the place soon where Asa and I fully separated, by his own choice, naturally as a leopard does, to live the life we hoped for...

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A beautiful birthday celebration... but what price the future or Nepal's children?

There was no electricity but there were plenty of smiles.  As I posted yesterday (Facebook) it was the birthday of dad Som and daughter Selush while mum Kalpana, son Xenus and I joined in.  And ok, ok, ok... I am developing a reputation for just happening to be in certain villages when birthdays occur... and there is cake.  BUT if you look at the photo of me giving Tika to Selush you'll see I am not even looking at the cake, rumours of my cake addiction are completely unfounded (SECRET: 12 step programs don't work).

It was a great evening, simple, with cake.  Som and I go back a while now and spending time with his beautiful family is a real blessing for me, especially with everything going on right now.

And that's the rub.  As a father of two, I have like Som, a daughter two years older than my son.  The thing is my kids (much older of course) have a strong future, they have real opportunity and they are both embracing that.  Here in Nepal things are very uncertain, that kind of future is far from secure.  What really concerns me is that the duty of care about this situation both in country and internationally is not being fulfilled.  There is even a type of denial in many quarters.

That sort of denial is a weakness of humanity, a lack of will to really look after their own.

Conservation and humanitarianism are directly linked in a country like Nepal.  The tiger (read wildlife, biodiversity), our children are linked by an uncertainty that will take real strength of leadership, of will, to remove.

That's the challenge...

My favourite image among these is Som and Selush pointing to each other as we sing happy birthday.  Love can conquer so much but other solutions are needed...

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Marginalized wildlife, marginalized people - leopards and earthquakes...

As I've mentioned before, things are very fluid here in Nepal.  This short post is really an abbreviated version of something coming up.  To get the essence of it I ask you to quickly check the two brief posts I made earlier today on Facebook.

The image was taken just under two years ago testing cameras while working on Project Mountain Tiger, part of a long term agreement I have with a community in the Annapurna Himalaya. I choose this image now because it was winter (above 4000m) and it was cold, damn cold.  This is the very same cold that people are feeling right now.

Shortly after I used this image for a cover shot the first of two significant dates occurred when I met Asa, the young leopard cub, beginning a story many of you have followed, his rewilding to the point where he became independent and free.  That was 4 February 2014.

The second significant date was the first of two major earthquakes here in Nepal.  25 April 2015 was a day which affected a nation in ways which will impact forever.  Thousands of lives were lost but sadly, there are many people who have not received enough help... aid that in the world we live in today we are more than capable of giving.

But we've failed.

Particularly for those who were marginalized even before the earthquakes.

In many ways their plight has correlation with the leopard Asa.  His species is marginalized as well.  As I wrote above this post is just a lead in to that...

WildTiger is committed to helping the marginalized.  The world puzzles me that in 2016 we are still failing as humanity and events of the last two years, even the last few days, have added to my frustration.  All that can be done is to keep on trying to help.  A long cold motorbike trip followed by a trek into a remote earthquake ravaged region awaits me in a couple of days.  A young Nepali aid worker who cares deeply about what is happening, will be with me as we link up with an army major to do yet another needs assessment for people living cold in leopard territory.  These people have been let down by government, the private sector, the world, all of us.

Blankets and warm gear are needed badly for many areas of Nepal.  If you can help simply go to and follow the subscription link, you'll see how it works easily enough.  I'm expanding the format for 2016, forced to do so as we try to help marginalized wild cats and people, two entities linked by the way they share habitat, two entities let down badly by the world...

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