In the paw prints of leopards

30/07/2019 in Conservation

Leopard territory on the edge of the Kathmandu valley – Godawari Forest

One of the great things about working at the RZSS WildGenes Lab is sharing knowledge between lab teams around the world, collaborating with people from Scotland to as far away as Cambodia! This year we have focused on transferring a new WildGenes protocol to our partners in Nepal.

In February we ditched the bitter Edinburgh winter and headed off to the Centre for Molecular Dynamics Nepal (CMDN), a genetic laboratory based in the capital city of Nepal, Kathmandu. We have been working with CMDN on the Himalayan Wolf Project, but not wanting to take sides in the dog versus cat rivalry, we thought it was high time we focused our attention on the other top carnivores, the big cats of Nepal. The WildGenes lab has developed a protocol that allows us to use genetics to determine what a predator has eaten. We developed this method with the tigers and leopards at Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park as part of the Living with Tigers Project and it was now our job to put the protocol into action. What have wild tigers and leopards been eating?

The leopard is the only confirmed big cat found in the mid-hills of Nepal, a region that runs from east to west across the country, sandwiched between the lowland subtropical jungle to the south (inhabited by the Bengal tiger) and the high Himalayas to the north (perfect snow leopard habitat). The mid-hills have historically contained the largest human populations including the capital city in the Kathmandu valley. However, as the city’s population continues to grow, it is now climbing into the surrounding hills. These hills are the last domain of the Kathmandu valley leopards and as humans continue to encroach on their territory there is an increasing risk of conflict.

CMDN researcher Prajwol Manandhar has set out to understand the leopards of the Kathmandu Valley in the hope to tackle the root cause of the conflict. He wants to determine the population size and territory ranges of the leopards by searching the hills for signs. He is also collecting leopard scats to identify what they are eating. Is there evidence that the leopards are attacking dogs and livestock like people fear? Not only were we able to test some of his leopard samples in the CMDN laboratory but we were also able to join him for a day in the field.

Scratch marks on a tree and old leopard scats in the area.

Myself and Jenny, the senior RZSS WildGenes technician, set off early one Saturday morning to meet Prajwol and his colleagues Naresh, Bidhya and Nikita. Joining a group of seasoned field researchers in the high-altitude Kathmandu hills (more like Scottish mountains than hills) was a bit nerve-racking at first. Knowing that we were entering leopard territory did little to calm those nerves and Prajwol quipped that its riskiest to be at the front or back of the group as he bounded up the hill ahead. Great incentive for us to keep up! It was a glorious landscape though, with broadleaf forest transforming into pines the higher we trekked. We were with a group of experts, the sun was blazing down and the adrenaline was keeping our eyes well and truly peeled; it was not long before we began to relish the experience. Prajwol continually pointed out leopard signs, including scratch marks and old scats near the trail from his previous surveys. After much walking (and sweating, and puffing) Jen was even lucky enough (is lucky the right word?) to almost tread on a fresh leopard scat. Calling back the field team that had sprinted ahead (our slower speed now justified) the group set to work collecting samples for the lab.

Bidhya, Nikita and Prajwol (L-R) sampling the leopard scat.

It is these crucial scat samples that will help reveal the elusive behaviour of the leopards. As they are nocturnal and extremely wary of humans little is known about their movements or habits (even Prajwol has never seen one). However, we can gain a genetic fingerprint for each leopard from its scat and also identify its most recent prey. By the end of the day we had documented multiple leopard signs and sampled two new scats. A successful day for the leopard project and a great chance for us to learn from a fantastic field team. If that wasn’t enough it was also topped off by delicious Nepalese cuisine, a table full of momo!

Nikita explains all about momo (a cross between a dumpling and a mini pasty).

While it was wonderful to be out in the hills following in the pawprints of leopards it was also valuable to understand how samples are found, collected and stored. Much of the lab work hinges on the sample collection methods, influencing how they can be used and processed. Conservation crucially relies on the development of international partnerships like this one for the transfer of knowledge. The Nepal visit was a great chance for both teams to learn and seeing Prajwol’s passion as he describes the aims of the Kathmandu Valley Leopard Project was inspiring (also recently covered in the national news). I hope he is able to have a positive impact while leopards still roam the hills.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this ramble with us through the hills of Nepal.

Until next time!

Alex

The training in Nepal is part of a larger project focusing on Human-Felid conflict within and around the National Parks of Nepal. It’s a combined effort with our partners at Chester Zoo, the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCru) at Oxford University and CMDN. Keep your eyes peeled for a tiger update later this month.

 

The work of the WildGenes lab is supported by the People’s Postcode Lottery

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