‘We’re encroaching into their habitat’: Angry mob kills leopard in Azad Kashmir

A mob of people killed a leopard by strangling it and pelting it with stones on February 8, 2022, in the Hattian Bala district of Azad Kashmir, the Pakistani-administered section of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region. At least 10 leopards – an endangered species – were killed by humans in Azad Kashmir in the past year, raising concerns about human-wildlife conflicts in the region.

A leopard was killed by a mob of villagers in the district of Hattian Bala, in Azad Kashmir, on February 8, 2022.
A leopard was killed by a mob of villagers in the district of Hattian Bala, in Azad Kashmir, on February 8, 2022. © Twitter / @MOHEBULLAHNAVE2

Several videos shared online show the leopard cornered in a rocky area as people look on from above and beside it. The leopard had entered the village of Sarai in Hattian Bala the morning of February 8 and attacked two people, causing them minor injuries. 

Locals called wildlife officials, but before they arrived they threw stones at the animal. Angered by recent leopard attacks on livestock, such as goats and cows, the villagers trapped it and tied it up. The leopard was reportedly killed after being tied up and dragged around. 

A photo shared online shows the leopard tied up.

‘The leopards are not able to find enough prey for themselves, so that’s why they come and attack the livestock’

Rina Saeed is the chairwoman for the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB), a conservation group managing a national park in Pakistan, which helped the Azad Kashmir wildlife authorities deal with recent leopard incidents. She told the FRANCE 24 Observers team why human-leopard conflicts were becoming more common in this area. 

The wildlife department was on the way, but the people were so incensed because the leopard had killed some of their livestock, so they didn’t wait. Even though the police were sent, there was a mob of 200 people who threw stones and took out their anger and frustration. 

The winter months are a dangerous time when the leopards come down from the mountains because of the snow. They’re not able to find enough prey for themselves, so that’s why they come and attack the livestock. And Pakistan has one of the highest population rates in Asia, and we’re encroaching into their habitat.

Once the authorities reached the site, they registered a complaint against two people responsible for killing the leopard, but it was not clear whether they were arrested. The animal was sent to Muzaffarabad for an autopsy. The people injured by the leopard were treated in a local hospital and released shortly after. 

There is no clear estimate of the number of leopards in Azad Kashmir, but urbanisation has led to an increase in leopard sightings over the last year. The presence of leopards poses a problem for wildlife agencies, who aim to protect the animals without putting the local community at risk of physical or financial harm.

The local community says that we only care about the leopards, not about their livelihoods. One leopard can kill up to 15 or 20 goats at one time, and that’s a sizeable hit to people who are poor villagers. The government really needs to come up with a compensation scheme. People should have support as well as a greater awareness. If there is a leopard coming into the village, they can scare him off with firecrackers. Why do you have to confront the leopard? Of course the leopard will attack when it is chased and confronted and cornered. 

Another leopard killed just two weeks earlier

The IWMB was already present in the region to rescue a leopard that was found in Neelam Valley, a district in the north of Azad Kashmir.

Locals in Neelam Valley found an injured female tiger near a river on January 23, 2022.

Two weeks before the incident, we found out about an injured leopard. We were sent footage of a female leopard in Azad Kashmir that was near a river and could barely move. Her hind legs were paralysed. The villagers had found her and called the Azad Kashmir Wildlife Department who went to try and rescue her. They don’t really have the means or the facilities to treat her, so we offered and told them if they send her to us, we have a vet and a rescue and rehabilitation centre. 

Initially they told us she was hit by a car and we said we might be able to save her. But unfortunately, we found out that she had been shot with a 12-bore shotgun and had five to six pellets along her spine, paralysing her. The vets tried to save her but she died during the operation. 

Local people had been reporting that she had two cubs and had come down from the mountains to hunt for livestock. The 12-bore shotgun is usually used by villagers – this is not the job of a professional hunter because they would use a rifle. 

The IWMB sent a team of staff members to install camera traps in the area where the leopard was found, to get an image of her cubs. They found traces of the cubs and indications that they were old enough to hunt on their own. The board decided to leave the cubs in the wild, rather than trap them and move them into captivity. 

‘The presence of a leopard in an area is actually a sign of a healthy ecosystem’

It was really tragic because she was just such a beautiful leopard that had just been killed unnecessarily. The most important thing is to make people aware that these are beautiful animals. They’re critically endangered in Pakistan. And they are being killed mercilessly – by hunting, poaching, villagers poisoning them or shooting them. The presence of a leopard in an area is actually a sign of a healthy ecosystem because it is an apex predator and keeps all the other herbivores in check. It shows that the ecosystem is healthy and can sustain them.