Despite being protected under international and national wildlife protection legislations, common leopards remain endangered in Pakistan due to habitat loss, conflicts with communities, poaching, and illegal trade. These territorial and nocturnal animals primarily feed on dogs and monkeys but may also consume other animals, birds, reptiles, and vegetation.
Illegal housing and illegitimate pet trade of big cats is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. Public showcasing and transportation of big cats in cities are frequently witnessed. The first leopard attack on humans in Pakistan was reported in June 2005 that killed six women. In 2020, five lions escaped from a private farmhouse in Karachi, causing concern among local residents. The lions initially attacked dogs before entering a nearby seminary. Some culprits were caught, while others managed to escape or remain unknown.
Pakistan signed the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1973, but only enacted the Pakistan Trade Control of Wild Fauna and Flora Act in 2012 to regulate the import and export of all CITES listed species of fauna and flora. Although there is a significant trade of big cats in Pakistan, the country currently lacks established monitoring mechanisms for tracking the extent of this trade and managing captive big cats, including the disposal of carcasses and ownership of expired specimens in private facilities.
The provincial wildlife departments should grant permission for the possession of any species listed in Appendix 1 and 2 of CITES. However, in some provinces like Punjab, this is not happening because the Wildlife Protection Act of 1974 only applies to indigenous species and does not cover exotic species.
Powerful individual who flaunt ownership of exotic animals, including leopards, as a display of status and wealth, may drive demand for these animals as pets. Encouraging responsible and ethical behaviour towards wildlife is key to stopping the illegal pet trade of leopards.
Weak governance and insufficient enforcement of wildlife protection laws create an enabling environment for illegal pet trade of leopards to thrive. Powerful individual who flaunt ownership of exotic animals, including leopards, as a display of status and wealth, may drive demand for these animals as pets. Encouraging responsible and ethical behaviour towards wildlife is key to stopping the illegal pet trade of leopards.
One hopes the authorities take proper action against those involved in the incident. Forensic investigations to assess sources of acquiring the leopard are essential dimensions for policymakers and law enforcers to ascertain if the animal was a victim of in-country poaching and illegal trade or a part of unregulated illicit global trade.
Raising awareness regarding negative impacts of the trade as well as ethical and sustainable behaviour may help reduce demand for these animals as pets. Education campaigns can also help people understand that keeping wild animals as pets is illegal, cruel, and harmful for their survival. Through behavioural change interventions, individuals can promote conservation of wildlife and discourage practices that exploit them. Citizens play a critical role in curbing the illegal trade of leopards by reporting any illegal possession of these animals to relevant wildlife authorities. This reporting can significantly contribute to efforts in reducing the demand for exotic animals as pets and ultimately discourage the illegal trade.
Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation face numerous challenges in Pakistan, including inadequate resources, infrastructure, and trained personnel. Also, due to the lack of wildlife hospitals and trained staff, many injured or sick animals are left untreated, leading to their death. However, the emergency rescue services, such as Rescue 1122 could potentially help in wildlife rescues, especially in populated areas, where their personnel may provide immediate assistance to the animal, ensuring that it is safely and appropriately rescued. Building a better and stronger collaboration between Rescue 1122 and wildlife protection authorities would support wildlife welfare and safe rescues substantially. This could include joint training programmes, sharing of information and resources, and establishing a coordinated response system for wildlife emergencies. Such collaborations would help to reduce wildlife mortality rates and ensure the long-term survival of Pakistan’s wildlife populations.
The Islamabad event offers valuable learning opportunities and emphasizes the need to prioritize future actions for wildlife conservation in Pakistan. Our response to the incident will determine our ability to prevent such incidents and protect wildlife effectively.
Protecting wildlife is a shared responsibility, and we must act now to prevent the illegal trade of leopards as pets and increase public awareness of their conservation. Together, we can ensure the survival of these magnificent big cats.