Nepali Times
Once there was a Leopard


On June 14, delegates from 85 nations came out of a 5-day UN meeting in Busan, South Korea, proposing to set up an international ''Science Policy Platform'' that many hope will do for biodiversity, what the 2006 Nicholas Stern report did for climate change. That is, put the issue on the global agenda.

The awkwardly named Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) will function much like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

It will produce peer-reviewed scientific reports that can serve as the basis for assessments of the state of the planet's biodiversity " and policy solutions.

The IPCC's reputation has been somewhat tarnished though the challenge of climate change remains a genuine and life-threatening one. It is to be hoped that the IPBES's reports will avoid similar stumbles.

While a stable climate regime is the cradle of life on Earth, biodiversity is the fabric of life. It is too important an issue to be lost in political and corporate games, which delayed action on climate change for years, and continue to bscure the issues and the solutions.

Unlike global climate change, biodiversity issues are very often local. And it is not just plunder and destruction by vested interests that is destroying biodiversity; beyond that is the entire paradigm in which we view our companion species, from leopards to Lepidoptera, from arachnids to antelopes.

There is enough evidence to confirm that in our time it is human activity that is driving most species to extinction.

One example is the Alaotra Grebe, a wetland bird that declined rapidly after carnivorous fish were introduced to its lake habitat in Madagascar.

This, along with the use of nylon gill-nets by fisherman which caught and drowned the birds, drove it to extinction, the IUCN noted on May 28, 2010.

Most species depend on human goodwill to survive. The public's imagination is caught by charismatic megafauna " big bodied species, mostly mammals, which are instantly recognizable even to the man on the street. These include tigers and lions, orangutans, gorillas, whales, dolphins and elephants. Looking cuddly " like the Giant Panda " also helps.

All these species face an uphill battle for survival " but perhaps none more so than the large bodied predators, some of which, like crocodiles, do not appeal much to the general public. What they are up against was dramatically illustrated last January when students training in camera-trapping of wildlife in the sprawling wooded campus of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) near the north Indian city of Dehra Dun and close to the forests of Rajaji National Park, detected the presence of a leopard.

It was not the first leopard to have come through the grounds. Thinning habitat and vanishing prey, have across India driven leopards to the margins of their preferred habitat. In some cases, human habitation has come to them, leaving them with little choice but to live in a human - dominated landscape " sometimes in fear and conflict but mostly in peace.

Many of the students and faculty at the WII, were delighted at the leopard's presence. As scientists working for wildlife conservation, coexistence of people and wildlife is at the heart of the issues they grapple with. To have a leopard " a species now quite severely endangered - on the premises was to many, an endorsement of everything the WII stands for.

Not quite, however. Many in the area " including families of general staff members - were afraid of the leopard. Children had been instructed to stay indoors after sunset. After much debate the director of the WII apparently decided to have the leopard " a female with cubs " driven out of the sheltering scrub and woodland.

Parts of the scrub were cut down, and parts burned. In the process the leopard, cornered, severely mauled two people. One faculty member wryly remarked that it was a case of ''people attacking the leopard'' and not the other way around as claimed by local media. The leopard had lived in the vicinity for some time raising her cubs, without attacking anyone until the attempt to evict her.

The incident sparked outrage in conservation circles. If the WII could not tolerate a leopard on its premises, then what right could conservationists and scientists have to preach co-existence with and tolerance of wildlife, to communities living in and near forests? The problem is our inability to live in peaceful co-existence with species that are capable of killing and eating us, even if most of the time they do not because human beings are not natural prey.

In his 2003 book ''Monster of God'' David Quammen wrote how humans fear being reminded by the presence of predators, of our real place in the food chain " which is not at the top of it. For that reason, the response of our species is to destroy the predator.

Many predators are what biologists refer to as keystone species. A keystone balances the opposing forces of an arch; without it, the structure will wobble and collapse. Predators perform much the same function in the food chain. Remove a top or ''alpha'' predator and its prey species will multiply, with cascading consequences for the rest of the ecosystem. It is admittedly easy for faraway armchair conservationists to preach co-existence with predators. Try telling that to a family with small children in a flimsy cottage at the edge of a forest, depending on a few cows and goats for their livelihood. Some conservationists maintain that co-existence of humans with large predators like tigers, is simply not possible without conflict - which the tiger will, like the WII leopard, of course lose. Tolerance for wildlife has diminished, across the world and also in Asia. How far will the IPBES go towards correcting the paradigm? Probably not far enough or fast enough - and therein lies the challenge.

In his book Quammen wrote ''The foreseeable outcome is that in 2150, when human population peaks at around 11 billion, alpha predators will have ceased to exist " except behind chain link fencing, high-strength glass, and steel bars.''

''As memory recedes and the zoo populations become.. ever more conveniently docile.. people will find it hard to conceive that those animals were once proud, dangerous, unpredictable, widespread, and kingly, prowling free among the forests, rivers, estuaries, and oceans used by humanity.''

''Children will be startled to learn, if anyone tells them, that once there were lions at large in the very world.''

The writer is Thailand Correspondent for The Straits Times, has written books on Indian wildlife, runs the website and is a Trustee of The Corbett Foundation, which works for wildlife and people in the Corbett Tiger Reserve area in northern India.

Nepal's year of the leopard, SHAHANI SINGH

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)