Thursday 19 April 2012

Snow Leopard Killed in Rawalakot

April 2012: An endangered snow leopard that had retreated up a tree near a village was shot by some of the residents who claimed self-defense. The wild cat was said by a villager to have remained in the tree for eight hours.
The location was the remote town of Rawalkot in Azad Kashmir.

Initially villagers noticed the snow leopard near settled areas and contacted a local official who told them to scare it away with firecrackers. They killed it instead. Their defense for the cat’s death was protecting human life, however no verified attack on a human by a snow leopard has ever taken place, according to the Snow Leopard Trust. Snow leopards are known to be very wary of humans and remain far away in mountainous areas. They only time they may be aggressive is when they have cubs and people are getting to close to them. Snow leopards reportedly will not even defend an animal they have killed and are eating, if humans approach. Snow leopards have been said to be the least aggressive of the large cats.

So it seems more likely the villagers were the aggressors and merely used self-defense as a justification for their behavior. The fact they skinned and dressed the cat and distributed its meat throughout the village suggests they may have had an ulterior motive. Last year another snow leopard was also shot and killed in the same area. Another clue the main motivation was not self-defense is a local superstition consuming snow leopard is beneficial for treatment of orthopedic diseases. This kind of irrational belief is also driving the illegal trade in wildlife (tiger body parts and rhino horns) putting species on the verge of extinction. The mere fact such a belief exists suggests strongly there has been a historical practice of killing snow leopards to eat them.

The Snow Leopard Conservancy has been working with communities living near snow leopard habitats to reduce the number of killings and to help villagers economically.

A scared cat climbs up a tree, is spotted by an innocent child and consequently rescued by local heroes – an anecdote of human compassion often narrated in children’s books. However, in the remote town of Rawalkot in Azad Kashmir, when a snow leopard, an endangered species, climbed up a tree in fear, the villagers shot it down.

Kashmir is home to two of the world’s big cats, the common leopard (Panthera pardus) and the snow leopard (Uncia uncia), a cat so secretive few have been privileged enough to get a glimpse of it in the wild. A businessman of the area, Waseem Khursheed, is a witness to the killing. “A snow leopard climbed up a tree and remained there for eight hours in the town of Banjosa, some 18 kilometres from Rawalkot.” Locals informed Deputy Commissioner Sohail Azam about the animal which had left its habitat and ventured near the settled areas. The deputy commissioner asked the villagers to scare the leopard through firecrackers, but finding the steps inadequate, they decided to kill it instead.

Khursheed said the villagers acted upon a “self-help basis” to avert any threat to human life. After the DC was informed of the leopard’s presence, a few police constables visited the site, but left shortly without taking any initiative. “Sensing the snow leopard’s hunger, the scared villagers shot down the animal with a 7mm rifle.”
Khursheed added that the villagers skinned the animal and distributed its meat among the locals as it is considered to be very useful for patients of orthopedic diseases. He added that a snow leopard was also killed last year in the same area, and though the police arrested the accused, he was later released on bail.
According to the AJK Wildlife Act, the killing of a snow leopard can result in imprisonment of up to 6 months and/or fine. However, no charges are a framed if the animal is killed in self-defence.

Narrating his version, DC Sohail Azam said that on being informed of the animal’s presence, he immediately contacted AJK Wildlife Department’s Director General Javed Ayub to dispatch a team to capture the animal without injury.

“The Wildlife Department’s DG was attending a function when he received my call. He suggested the use of firecrackers to scare the leopard away.” Azam added that he dispatched some policemen with the directives to adopt the same preventive measures.

Azam strongly advocates the need for a district-level office of the Wildlife Department to ensure the safety and protection of endangered animals in the populous hills and forests around Rawalkot. He confirmed the death of another leopard last February, who was also shot dead by locals.

Newly-inducted Wildlife Department DG Chaudhry Muhammad Razaq, who has recently replaced Javed Ayub, blames lack of manpower and proper equipment for the inefficacy. “My predecessor’s advice of using firecrackers to scare the animal away was the right solution.”

Encounters between humans and the big cats are becoming increasingly frequent. The animals wander off in search of food and venture towards the settled areas where they are killed by the locals out of fear and lack of awareness.

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