Tea-Time with Leopards

Next time you sit down to enjoy a cup of tea, and if it happens to be a tea from India, know there is a very good chance that leopards at one time or another may have inhabited the tea garden where the leaves were harvested. Of course a literal tea-time with leopards is never recommended, but the reality is they are a very common resident of many tea gardens in the country.

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A recent study from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) showed that leopards are partial to tea gardens in north-eastern India, but their presence does not necessarily mean conflicts with people. The study, a collaboration between the WCS, the National Centre for Biological Sciences-India, Foundation of Ecological Research Advocacy and Learning, and the West Bengal Forest Department, was done in highly populated areas that included tea gardens and forested area in the West Bengal state. The approximate 600 km area is part of the “East-Himalayan” biodiversity hot spot which includes small protected areas along with tea gardens, villages and agricultural fields. The study showed that leopards will avoid highly dense populated areas, but are partial to tea gardens as they provide ideal vegetation cover. Out of the four large cats in India which include tigers, lions and snow leopards, the leopard is the most adaptable and able to live in protected forests as well as on the edge of urban areas overlapping with humans.

The study mapped more than a 170 locations where people were injured by leopards and interviewed approximately 90 of those injured between 2009 and 2016. More than 350 leopard-human encounters were reported during this period, with five resulting in human fatalities.” No significant relationship was found between the probability of attack and probability of habitat-use by leopards.  Researchers noted that in the case of a rare attack it was accidental or defensive rather than predatory resulting in only minor injuries. Attacks were also likely to occur during the day, while people were working and in areas where the tea shrubs were shorter, denser and the land was relatively flat. The majority of the attacks happened between January and May when large sections of the gardens were disturbed for maintenance like pruning of tea bushes and irrigation.

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Leopard is scavenging on a dead gaur, a species of wild cattle. Credit: Kalyan Varma Image Phys.org

Like elsewhere in the world the study highlights the problems when human dominated spaces are shared with large predators like leopards. It identified particular hotspots of “conflict” and confirmed the importance of testing new methods to reduce human-leopard conflict. An early warning system, like making loud noises, alerting the animals to the presence of humans would provide enough time for them to move away, an approach that has already worked well in other areas.

In Assam, India’s northeast area, tea companies have already begun to implement practices to reduce conflict between humans and elephants, as well as prevent the loss of crops in a non-violent manner. Recognizing that as more habitat is lost due to humans wildlife will continue to seek refuge in the tea gardens and, by using fencing, corridors and specially built tiny reserves it will save the lives of both wildlife and people.

In a place where leopards have become “part of the tea garden habitat” tea estates are embracing policies and taking steps that promote co-existence. Many are certified by the Rainforest Alliance and abide by the Sustainable Agriculture Network which help to ensure that no wild animals were harmed or killed in the tea gardens.

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Cost of Doing Business

Some would say wildlife is priceless, but do the same animals still hold ‘value’ when deemed an inconvenience or in the way of human progress? Take predators for example, who seem to become scapegoats or expendable when their interests and needs conflict with ours. Do we on a subconscious level see them as direct competition for space, food and resources? Can we co-exist with them and share or must we, by our actions or lack of, eliminate the competition?

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Whatever the reason they become one of two things – the forgotten victims, or in some cases the ‘poster animal’ for the cause helping to create awareness and positive change. We now know that everything in our environment is connected and all species including predators are vital for helping maintain a healthy balanced Eco-system. Organizations, researchers and even the average citizen are working harder than ever to ensure that these animals are given a voice and a chance to co-exist despite our continued pressure upon the natural world and their habitat. Along with the encouraging stories of progress we have made, are there cases in which the loss of wildlife is simply another cost of doing business?

A few years ago when I was writing the story about an ocelot who was photographed in the Santa Rita Mountains outside of Tuscon Arizona I started reading up on how a Canadian mining company HudBay Minerals Inc. was planning on building the Rosemont Mine, the third largest open-pit copper mine in the U.S., in the same area where the ocelot was discovered and where later the now famous jaguar El Jefe would be photographed. The discovery of the endangered ocelot would prompt the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to re-evaluate their original report (biological opinion) on the impact of the mine. Conservationists said that there would be no way species like the ocelot and jaguar could survive, or co-exist if their habitat was destroyed by the mine.

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Male ocelot, photographed on May 14, is the fifth to be documented in Arizona over the past five years.

Fish and Wildlife Services would later issue their final biological opinion coming to the conclusion that the mine would cause “significant adverse impacts on many of the species” threatening not only predators but also endangered birds and fish. They went on to say that despite this, the number of measures that would be put in place by the mining company, such as the hiring of biologist to monitor effects on wildlife and creating permanent protected areas of conservation lands, it would “not jeopardize the continued existence of any of the 13 affected listed species” or hamper recovery of species like the jaguar despite destroying part of their habitat.

There has been mixed messages among the agencies tasked with reviewing the mine. An EPA report stated that the mine would have adverse consequences on the water system as well as several endangered species including fish, frogs and birds that reside near local streams. The Army corps of Engineers concluded that any measures taken would not fully make up for the “unavoidable adverse” impact of the mine even with appropriate measures taken. The U.S. Forest Service said that due to the 1872 Mining Law, which is still applicable today, the project cannot be denied.

Government agencies weren’t the only ones in disagreement with each other on the mine and, the value of a single jaguar seemed to be something that divided wildcat conservation groups. Panthera’s CEO, and leading expert on jaguars, Alan Rabinowitz wrote back in 2010 that the occasional cat crossing the border from Mexico does not mean they have established territory or that there is even suitable jaguar habitat left in the U.S. Southwest. His feelings remained the same and he told The Star that other reasons should be found to save the landscape especially when resources are needed elsewhere where the data supports evidence of concrete jaguar recovery. Wildcat researchers Aletris Neils and Chris Bugbee who had been studying El Jefe are on the other side and disagreed saying that every single jaguar was important and that the focus should be on recovery of the species to its former range. They believe jaguars can be brought back to the area and that the public must weigh in on the decision.

In a federally financed three-year study by the University of Arizona study tracing the paths of jaguars and ocelot across Southern Arizona, researchers placed remote cameras at 250 sites across 16 mountain ranges capturing photos of a jaguar, ocelot, bobcat and mountain lion at two sites in the northern Santa Ritas. Both times, all four species were photographed within a 24-hour period, the researchers said. Melanie Culver, the study’s principal investigator and Susan Malusa, the study’s project manager told Tucson online that the habitat in the Santa Rita’s should be protected but they could not fully comment on the proposed mine as it wasn’t part of their study. Malusa said it would change things but they weren’t able to predict how.

David Chambers, an environmental consultant, told The Star that there was no definite answer as to whether the mine was “good or bad and, that it comes down to determining if the economic benefits outweigh the environmental and social costs.” Jessica Moreno of Sky Island Alliance said that not everyone cares about a jaguar named El Jefe. The critical issue of the water permits may be the best way stop the mine.

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El Jefe in 2014 – Image USFWS – As of early 2017 it has been about a year since El Jefe has been seen leading to speculations that something has happened to him or he has returned to Mexico.

Here are a few things to think about. Copper is in everyday items that we use from cars to cellphones, what are we wiling to give up or eliminate from our lives in order to protect our environment and wildlife? Do we invest more heavily in the technology to recycle and reuse existing copper or are we forever stuck having to mine for it and risk diminishing precious Eco-systems for materials like copper? As the human population grows demand for copper and other materials will increase and if it must be mined, who determines where the copper comes from? Kathy Arnold, Rosemont’s director of environment said in the article from The Star that if the demand for copper continues to grow it will have to come from somewhere and with about “30 percent of what we need being imported another country pays the environmental price for our consumption”. She goes on to say that it’s better to have someone like her watching out for the environment than in places where there are less or no proper controls.

What can be expected with a mile-wide, half-mile deep open-pit mine that is set to border the Santa Rita Mountains in the Coronado National Forest? It would bury 3,000 acres of surrounding public land generating more than a billion tons (1.25 billion tons) of toxic mine waste that will be dumped into 700-foot high “earthforms” and, it is expected to require “6,000 acre-feet of water per year”. It is clear that the mine will disturb, stress, disrupt and possibly become an additional form of mortality for wildlife in addition to the impact it would have on the environment, water supply and local people.

According to Rosemont Mine Truth, who continues to monitor this highly controversial project, there is a “possibility that HudBay could mine up to an additional 591 million tons of copper-bearing rock after mining in the pit is completed” further impacting the landscape, threatened and endangered species, water resources and ecotourism.  As it stands now a Clean Water Act permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and, final approval from the Coronado National Forest are required before construction could begin. A final decision is expected soon.

For updates and details on the mine’s progress, please head over to Rosemont Mine Truth on Facebook.

The Cost of Doing Business continues looking at few other projects elsewhere that are, or have the potential to impact the big cats and wildlife.

Winter Stroll

About a week ago I posted a clip of this video on Instagram but thought it was just too beautiful not to share in its entirety. It was taken in 2013 in Northern Ontario by YouTube user ReelEdgeProductions on a Sunday afternoon as they were BBQ’ing on their back deck. What a privilege to see these amazing cats causally taking a winter stroll through your backyard.

The Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) is a medium-sized cat characterized by its long ear tufts, flared facial ruff, and short, bobbed tail with a black tip, unusually large paws that act like snowshoes in very deep snow, thick fur and long legs, and its hind legs are longer than its front legs. Lynx are generally found in moist, boreal forests that have cold, snowy winters and a high density of their favorite prey: the snowshoe hare. The southern portion of their range historically extended into the US into the northern Rocky Mountains/Cascades, southern Rockies, Great Lakes states and the Northeast.

Lynx mate during the winter and the females give birth once a year. Lynx ARE NOT considered species at risk in Canada and sadly are killed for their fur pelts, which occurs in 10 of 12 range provinces and territories (Northwest Territories, Yukon Territory, Nunavut, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador). Lynx harvest is prohibited in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Lynx were extirpated from Prince Edward Island in the late 1800s.

In the US they are listed under Endangered Species Act and can no longer be legally trapped in the lower 48 states. However, they have not fully recovered from population declines, and remain at serious risk. Primary sources of mortality to Lynx are starvation, predation, and human-related causes, as well as habitat loss to Boreal forests (this includes logging, road-building and high traffic volume, housing developments, resource extraction such as oil drilling and mining, and winter recreation).

Climate Change is also a threat as the deep snow, that Lynx have an advantage over other predators in, becomes less predictable.

Ghost of the Mountain

Panthera uncia, or the Snow Leopard, is a gorgeous and rare cat that lives in the mountains of Central Asia. I have long been fascinated with these mysterious and other worldly cats who seem to exude a sense of intangible wisdom and calm, perhaps this is a direct result of having evolved to live in such a harsh and remote environment. The mysterious quality is well earned as they are very hard to photograph and study. In fact, most of the photos taken of Snow Leopards are done with strategically placed camera traps, making images like the one by wildlife photographer Steve Winter, extremely breathtaking and precious.

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One of the most elusive of the big cats & rarest photographed – Image Steve Winter

Snow Leopards are known for their mystical beauty and elusive nature, and because of this they have been called the Ghost of the Mountains.  Part of their allure is their fur, which is luxuriously beautiful and practical at keeping them perfectly warm and camouflaged  in the rugged and unforgiving landscape in which they live and hunt. While Snow Leopards are found in 12 countries approximately 60% of the cats habitat can primarily be found in China.

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The snow leopard has white, yellowish and smoky grey speckled fur with dark-grey to black spots and rosettes. Image – Snow Leopard Trust

As with all cats they have physical characteristics that suit their environment, and their features do more than present a pretty picture, they serve a purpose. The round short ears help reduce heat loss and the wide and short nasal cavity heat the chilled outside air before reaching the lungs. “In the Himalayas, they are usually found between 3,000 and 5,400 meters above sea level. In Mongolia and Russia, these cats are found at lower altitudes of 1000 meters. At the Snow Leopard’s typical elevation, the climate is cold and dry, and only grasses and small shrubs can grow on the steep mountain slopes.”

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Snow leopards prefer the broken terrain of cliffs, rocky outcrops, and ravines. Image –  Steve Tracy, Courtesy of the Snow Leopard Trust

Other physical features that make Snow Leopards suited for its extreme environment include: extra big paws that act like snow shoes; a long tail that is used for balance and also keeping warm on cold nights; short front limbs and long back limbs which are used to help the cat propel itself up to 30 feet at once and, very strong chest muscles to help it climb mountains for prey.

Since Snow Leopards are hard to study researchers have relied on camera trap technology which has helped them understand more about the cats than ever before. However, their ghost like presence has still made it impossible to determine exactly how many exist and, estimates have put this endangered cat at only 3,500 – 7,000 individuals. Snow Leopards are listed on CITES Appendix I which offers the highest level of protection and means all international trade that is primarily for commercial purposes is prohibited. They are also legally protected from hunting by national legislation across most of its 12 range states and, in 2009 Afghanistan gave the cats legal protection by listing the species on the country’s first Protected Species List.

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The Snow Leopard Trust has documented one cat who walked 27 miles in just one night.

While Snow Leopards tend to be ‘crepuscular’, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk their behavior has noted to be influenced by the presence of humans. It has been found that were there is less human population they are active in the daytime and when there are more people nearby their territory, they become ‘nocturnal’ or active at night.

The cats communicate over vast distances either by marking, which is done by scraping the ground, or spraying urine on ridges and cliffs along the mountains. Solitary animals, once mating season is over the male and female part ways leaving her to raise the cubs until they reach about 2 years old at which time the cubs will leave to look for their own territory. A Snow Leopards territory can be hundreds of square km and overlap but, researchers believe that the amount of space each cat needs may differ between the landscapes and availability of prey.

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Snow Leopards from the Zurich Zoo – Image Flickr

While Snow Leopards can purr, mew, hiss and growl they cannot roar instead, they are known to make a puffing sound called a ‘chuff’ just like Tigers. The ability to roar does not exist in Snow Leopards due to the physiology of their throat, or structure of the hyoid bone.  To hear what the chuffing sounds like check out this video of a Snow Leopard from Big Cat Rescue.

What is also important to note is that these cats are not aggressive towards humans and, there has never been a confirmed Snow Leopard attack on a human being. Instead they have a reputation for running away rather than defending themselves if disturbed. Like all cats, they may however become aggressive during an encounter between two males or if a female’s cubs are being threatened.

While Snow Leopards may not be the most photographed of the big cats, never before seen footage has been released in time to celebrate International Snow Leopard Day which is marked today October 23. The WWF has released photos and video to coincide with a report that highlights the fragile connections between Snow Leopards, People, Water And The Global Climate. They say that a third of the cats habitat is at risk from climate change.  Images in this video were taken in Nepal and Mongolia.

As with all our big cats human activity is a major threat to the survival of this species, this includes poaching for their fur, retaliatory killings for livestock loss, loss of habitat and prey, mining activities and lack of resources to protect the cats. If that wasn’t enough, climate change will now add another immediate threat to the survival of Snow Leopards. WWF-UK tells International Business Times that “The Himalayas region will face a major crisis if we choose to ignore climate change. Not only do we risk losing majestic species such as the snow leopard, but hundreds of millions of people who rely on water flowing from these mountains may be affected.”

The leading organization on these cats the Snow Leopard Trust, founded in 1981, is at the forefront working diligently to save them while offering ways for people to help Snow Leopards by either donating, volunteering, shopping or becoming a partner. They also have a wealth of resources about their work and research available online including their report on how Climate Change could speed up the Snow Leopards demise.

The Snow Leopard Trust has put together this wonderful two-part infographic fact sheet which can be shared and downloaded from their site, it is a great educational tool to inform others of this amazing cats plight and help them understand why they are worth saving.

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