The Phantom in Peril | WWF
© Muhammad Osama / WWF-Pakistan
Syed Muhammad Khan writes about the elusive and highly threatened snow leopard.

The Phantom in Peril

It is natural for humans to fear and even hate things that they either don’t understand or only possess minimum knowledge about. It is a common norm in almost all societies to depict predatory animals as antagonists in folktales, stories, poems and even movies. This blend of hatred and fear for predators stems from the fact they seem to be nothing but bad news for humans. Our knowledge about predators dictates that they intrude our territories, prey upon our cattle, kill our people and may even introduce deadly diseases like rabies. In short, our interactions with predators, of all kinds, have been harmful only to us. The aforementioned belief is one of the most conclusive proofs that humans tend to see evil only in others but not in ourselves. Most people fail to notice that predators are a natural part of ecosystems and are there for a reason, hence they can’t be pure evil (except in Hollywood films, where their only job seems to be chasing after a beautiful damsel in distress, after killing all of her unattractive friends). Secondly, they don’t intrude in our lands; in fact we have intruded into their territories, and have devastated their habitats in the process of making our own homes. And worst of all, we blame them so easily for the damage that we take without even taking into consideration the damage that they have sustained because of us or the fact that it is our intrusion that has upset the natural barrier between us and them. One such victim of this misunderstanding is the beautiful and elusive phantom of the mountains, the snow leopard.

Although in Urdu, the snow leopard is called barfani cheetah, it is actually a leopard and not a cheetah, which is a clear indication of the fact that we know very little about the big cat and to hate it would be utter stupidity. In fact, snow leopards are one of the most unique big cats of the world. They are mountain dwellers and live in the rugged mountain ranges of the Central Asian region, which includes the northern areas of Pakistan as well. The name phantom or ghost is often associated with these beautiful creatures because of their shy and elusive nature and the fact that they are mostly active in the night hours (nocturnal). They exhibit superb camouflage to merge with their mountainous environment via their whitish-grey fur that is patterned with dark grey rosettes and spots. Other adaptations for survival in the inhospitable snow-capped mountains include an unusually thick fur and an exceptionally long tail (as compared to most cats) that not only aids in balance but also acts as a blanket when the leopard sits and wraps it around itself. Unlike most of their pantherine relatives, snow leopards are comparatively smaller in size and can’t roar. But their small size should not mislead one into thinking that they are any less of a predator as compared to other big cats. In fact, they can take on prey almost three times their own weight, all by themselves (as they are solitary), but mostly, they are opportunistic and tend to go for the easiest kill. Their success as a predator is even more appreciable owing to the fact that their environment does not provide them with flat and even surfaces, which makes maneuvering very hard.

But this beautiful and shy felid has been mercilessly persecuted by humans either with the excuse of retribution or for their body parts. As their natural prey continues to be depleted due to habitat destruction and overgrazing of livestock, with a hungry stomach and cubs to feed, snow leopards are forced to turn to domesticated animals as food. And when they kill a few livestock animals, people go on a killing spree, taking out as many poor snow leopards as they can find, this phenomenon is termed human-wildlife conflict. They do all of this without realizing that it is because of their incursion that the snow leopards have been deprived of their natural prey. Moreover, as locals breach more and more into their habitat, they are themselves offering the phantoms easy prey, which they tend to go for; and as the saying goes, “An open door will even tempt a saint.”

Even more despicable are the people who hunt these beauties for their fur and bones, which are substituted for tiger bones in scientifically disapproved Chinese medicine. To make things even worse, their habitat has been exposed and fragmented due to construction of human settlements, roads, and highways. All of these are the proximal causes of putting the phantom in peril, but there lies a distal cause too and that is our failure as a society. Not only have our governments failed to enforce laws that ensure safety for the ghosts of the mountains but we too have failed as a society to recognize them as a national treasure and to provide support for their cause. If such atrocities continue, we risk losing these magnificent creatures from the face of the Earth.

Snow leopards serve as apex predators and their presence is vital for the maintenance of a natural balance. It is the duty or niche (the biological term for an organism’s job in its environment) of the phantoms to prey upon ungulates such as ibex, Marco Polo sheep and yaks, so that their populations don’t exceed the level that their ecosystems can sustain. In fact if there were no snow leopards, all of their prey would also be exterminated! This may seem unbelievable but this is exactly how ecosystems work, if the predators are removed from the equation, the prey species experience what biologists term population explosions. As their population levels reach their peak, the ecosystem starts lagging behind in the race of providing these populations and eventually all food supplies are depleted, leading to starvation and ultimately, death. Not only do snow leopards prevent these population explosions by preying on these species but they also save them from disease outbreaks and genetic imperfection by eliminating the sick animals and those with inferior genetic make-up (as they are the easiest to hunt).

Although there have been several efforts to conserve these rare felids such as providing the local community with livestock insurance and vaccination, predator proof corals, conservation education, etc. the danger is far from over. The national heritage predators of the land of the pure are on the brink of being wiped off the face of this Earth, as only around 400 individuals are believed to be alive in Pakistan and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has categorized the species as vulnerable. Our planet, which once hosted a rich variety of wild animals and plants, now finds itself being stripped off its natural beauty by the infestation of a pest that is man. The phantoms and all other predators are not villains, but they are in fact the sentinels, sustainers and saviors of their habitat and all that resides within it. They are struggling for survival in their own kingdom due to our unprovoked and unjustifiable invasion. This raises one of the most heart-rending questions: why is it that our wildlife, the jewel in our country’s treasures, has to pay for our crimes? This whole problem wouldn’t have ever happened if we hadn’t started it in the first place and now we find excuses to blame it on these poor souls. Yes souls, they too are alive and just like us, they deserve to live. If it is a crime to kill a man then it is also a crime to take the lives of these animals. We may think of ourselves as the centre of all creation but it would be a mistake to let this belief lead us into disturbing the delicate balance of nature, for all we know, the mass destruction that may one day end life may be brought about by our own actions.

Syed Muhammad Khan is studying Zoology at Government College University, Lahore.