For the last six months, Muhammad Ilyas, a watchman at Hazarganji National Park in Pakistan, has been trekking through steep barren mountains and canyons, in search of an elusive pair of Persian leopards.
There are only about 1,000 endangered Persian leopards left in the wild, with a majority across the border in Iran.
But suspected footprints of a pair of Persian leopards were seen late last year in Pakistan’s remote southwestern province of Balochistan, prompting wildlife officials to document their presence in the country for the first time.
“In December, we spotted two footprints of this rare big cat near a puddle of rainwater, clearly showing the big foot mark of a male and a small one of a female. Since then, our team has tried to capture the leopards on camera.” Ilyas, 41, told Vice World News.
Adult leopards live alone in the wild and pair only at the time of mating. While there was no sight of the female leopard, the male was finally spotted and filmed in May, prowling through the hilly terrain of the province’s national park.
“A park watchman spotted the male leopard early in the morning and informed us. We sat and waited for eight hours and then the leopard finally appeared on the cliff during a warm afternoon,” Ilyas said. For him, seeing the Persian leopard for the first time was like a dream come true.
The Persian leopard, also known as the Caucasian leopard or scientifically as the panthera pardus tulliana, is mostly found in Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey and the Caucasus.
Heavier, taller and with a more powerful bite than any other leopard subspecies, it also has a different spot pattern than the more common Indian leopard found in Pakistan and the vulnerable snow leopards in the country’s northern Himalayas.
Sharifuddin Baloch, a conservation official in Balochistan, told VICE World News that the sighting was “quite significant” because of the declining population of leopards, which have been impacted by deforestation, illegal hunting and conflict with livestock owners.
“The Hazarganji-Chiltan National Park is a protected area and the newly found leopard will absolutely remain safe here,” he said. “We are hoping that there will be more Persian leopards present in the area.”
The Balochistan Wildlife Department has also approached prominent organisations such as the the International Union for Conservation of Nature and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for help.
Conservationists hope the park will engage with them to explore key biodiversity areas and corridors used by the leopard inside and outside the area that are critically important for protecting the rare species.
“The Persian leopard is one of the least-studied subspecies of leopard. Discovery of two Persian leopards in Hazarganji Chiltan National Park is a good sign as they are an important indicator of the park’s health or ecosystem,” Tahir Rasheed, the Wildlife Director at WWF, Pakistan told VICE World News.
The 60 square-mile Hazarganji Chiltan National Park is one of Pakistan’s 14 national parks and is also a sanctuary for the endangered Chiltan wild goat and Pakistan’s national animal the endangered screw-horned markhor. Rasheed hopes the Persian leopard discovery will kickstart discussions in Pakistan on its protection status and conservation requirements.
Rasheed added that the presence of the rare big cat - and possibly his female mate - could attract interest from the general public who might visit the area and build support for protecting the Persian leopard in Pakistan.
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