Eight-year-old Azhar and his uncle Rustam were shepherding a pair of oxen from a nearby village through the forest as they headed home to Makol Bala, which sits in Abbottabad district. Rustam led the way with Azhar prodding the animals from the back. Their voices drifted through the air across the hill as they chatted back and forth.
At one point Rustam said something, but when Azhar didn’t respond, he looked back. The boy wasn’t there. The man panicked and ran back down the slope to look for him. He saw something disappear into the bushes and found Azhar on the ground, unmoving, in a pool of his own blood.
“My son died on the spot and the autopsy ascertained that Azhar’s throat and chest had wounds from the teeth and claws of a leopard,” his father Irshad Khan told Samaa Digital.
According to him, the leopards often entered the village and snatched goats but this was the first time it had gone beyond. Irshad and Rustam kept returning to the forest to settle the score for two months, but never found the beast.
Since 1984, twelve people have been killed and many others wounded in leopard attacks in Galiyat, according to a sub-divisional forest officer for the Abbottabad Wildlife Division, Sardar Muhammad Nawaz.
“The Wildlife Division has not done any scientific research… but according to our estimations, observations and calculations 40 pairs of leopards inhabited the Galiyat region,” he said. The species was rare 20 years ago but now appears to have grown. That is a good sign on one hand, but raises the worry of attacks.
In 1999, Ayubia National Park in Abbottabad, which used to be 4,000 acres was extended to 8,154 acres by including more parts of the Galiyat Reserve Forests. Human interference such as digging, tree or grass cutting, hunting or killing animals were prohibited in the entire area. As a result, the food chain and ecosystem improved, which led to an increase in the leopard population.
The ecosystem works through balance. If there were no leopards then the animals that form its diet would outgrow their natural numbers and would pose their own problems for humans living near the forests. The leopards, for example, feed on monkeys and wild boar, which is why the population of these species is kept in a balance in Galiyat. The wild boar gives birth to six to 10 boarlets twice a year but if there are no leopards then the wild boar population would explode.
A leopard’s home-range (or space per animal) is usually spread over 40 square kilometres but in Galiyat this range has shrunk to an area of five to 20 square kilometres as their numbers or density increased.
As the leopard home-range shrinks, the animal often barges into human settlements to look for food by hunting the cattle heads. “Leopards usually enter at night and hunt dogs, goats and other cattle,” according to Misar Khan, a resident of Nathia Gali.
Azhar’s father Irshad added that in Galiyat their presence has caused hatred among the villagers which is why they often kill them if they get trapped.
The Abbottabad Wildlife Division says that 110 leopards have been killed in the region since 1984, mostly at the hands of humans. Panicked villagers kill the beasts entering the human settlements. In Bakot, a leopard pregnant with three cubs was killed when villagers surrounded her, tied her with ropes and dragged her. She breathed her last in the Abbottabad veterinary hospital, after the police reached the spot and rescued her. The post-mortem report said that the cause of death was a fractured trachea and that she was estimated to be three to four years old.
Killing leopards is punishable by a penalty from Rs111,000 to Rs200,000. Dr Abrarul Hasan, who is in charge of the veterinary hospital, told Samaa Digital that since he had assumed charge in March 2019, he had performed three leopard autopsies. He had even treated an injured leopard which was then released into the wild by the department.
Increasing encounters between human and leopard in Galiyat is also attributed to the spread of human presence near the animal’s territories. Manager Conservation for the World Wildlife Fund in Pakistan, Muhammad Waseem, said that houses are built near their areas. “Every year three to five leopards are killed in Galiyat,” he said. He suggested the government inform people how to protect themselves as well as leopards and compensate people for loss of livestock in attacks.