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Mohamed bin Zayed Species project number 12255025

Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation (Project No. 12255025) - Persian leopard - Awarded $12,500 on March 01, 2013

The Persian leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor) has been the last big cat surviving in the Middle East and is the second rarest felid in the region next to the Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus). Most of leopards are known to roam throughout Iran, with the largest local population being concentrated in Golestan National Park. However, even the Golestan population is not safe since leopards are persecuted for livestock predation and hit by vehicles on the Asian highway bisecting the park. 

This project is the first of its kind addressing the human-leopard conflict in Golestan. It is aimed at collecting baseline information from local people about conflicts, identifying and mapping conflict hotspots, gathering robust knowledge about conflict-driving causes and revealing the patterns of conflicts. The team members are from University of Goettingen (Germany) and Persian Wildlife Heritage Fund (PWHF, Iran). More about the work on leopard in Golestan can be found here. Popular articles about the project are available in English and Farsi.

The questionnaire surveys covering all 34 villages located around Golestan were carried out during March and May 2013. Very good contacts were established with local Turkmen and Persian communities which allowed to obtain first-hand detailed information about rural livelihoods, conflicts with leopards and other species (wolf, wild boar), diseases and veterinary services, and attitudes to leopards and biodiversity conservation. Furthermore, official data from Statistical Centre of Iran were used to add demographic background of Golestan villages. 

A comprehensive computer database was created and subjected to statistical analyses in order to reveal mutually correlated factors and to extract the key causes among them. Correlation does not imply causation, since two factors can often be correlated through the mediation of third factors. Therefore, a causal diagram was built to eliminate irrelevant relationships, retain only important and truly causal factors, and draw a network of causes, effects and after-effects/consequences. A number of regression and classification techniques were used to cross-check the causes and effects. 

The key causes were dog presence during leopard attack, satisfaction by veterinary services, percentage of men in villages and pasture size. Dog presence (or, more accurately, absence) was the only reliable predictor of the number and biomass of killed cattle, proportion of killed cattle to all killed domestic animals, and cattle selectivity by leopards. In other words, the fact that dogs do not accompany freely grazing cattle makes these cattle prone to predation by leopards. 

Satisfaction by veterinary services was an overwhelmingly important predictor of the number and biomass of killed sheep, goats and dogs and all killed domestic animals in total. Villagers living in the western part of Golestan, within the zone of subtropical Hyrcanian humid forest, were much less satisfied with vet services because their villages are located far from the highway and are thus seldom visited by government-supported vaccination squads, even once every 2-3 years. As private vet services are very expensive and not affordable to most people, we suppose that infrequent vaccination may lead to increased morbidity in livestock and dogs and thus raise their vulnerability to leopard predation. Additionally, as dog presence is closely associated with shepherd presence in grazing grounds the percentage of men is a strong predictor of selective use of shepherd dogs by hunting leopards. Dogs are killed by leopards as much as they are left unattended by men. 

Conflicts and local attitudes constituted the effects in the causal diagram. Logically, the conflicts were underpinned by the causes of cattle, sheep, goat and dog kills by leopards indicated above. In contrast, attitudes were adversely affected only by kills of cattle. As cattle are the most expensive and valuable commodities to local communities, their losses engender resentment which can be further aggravated because villagers are not paid compensation.

The after-effects or consequences of conflicts and attitudes were escalation of conflicts and overestimation of leopard numbers and population growth in conflict areas. Most of conflict-struck villages indicated that their conflicts with leopards continue to escalate, and this trend was also inversely related to pasture size. On smaller pastures livestock are mobbing and easy to catch, especially in the western forested areas where pastures are much smaller than elsewhere and leopards kill their prey by ambush from lush cover. This is the second reason, apart from village remoteness from the highway leading to rare vaccination, why human-leopard conflicts are particularly common in the west of Golestan. 

Quite predictably, villagers from conflict areas thought that there are too many leopards around and their population increases, thus overestimating their real abundance and population growth in Golestan. In practice, the situation is opposite. As found out by independent camera-trapping done earlier by PWHF and partners throughout Golestan, leopards are less common in the west where conflicts are on place than in the east where such conflicts are absent or negligible. So, the role of conflicts in reduction of leopard numbers is indirectly proved which needs further research and comparison with distribution and trends of poaching. In our project, we did not find a strong relationship between conflicts and poaching across villages, but poaching is significantly correlated with the numbers of shepherds. This result gives a new and plentiful food for reflection. 

At the moment, GIS mapping of the Golestan area is partly done. The mapping continues and the analysis of already mapped data is underway. Soon, in cooperation with Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran our team will start genetic and dietary analyses of leopard feces (scats) from Golestan. This work will shed light on actual predation rates and their comparability with losses of livestock and dogs to leopards and will say if livestock-killing individuals are males or females. Then, beyond this project we will follow up by doing a comprehensive genetic tracking of human-leopard conflicts to determine also individuality and relatedness of problem leopards. Also, we plan to apply modern approaches of causal modeling to get new insights to the causes, effects and consequences of human-leopard conflict in Golestan.   

Project 12255025 location - Iran, Asia