The leopard, the which? and the wardrobe

There are very few lions in New Zealand. Or leopards. Or tigers. In fact, the only big cats that we have are, well, big cats. Once, when I was about 10, three circus lions escaped in the small town of Lawrence, not far from where I grew up. Or you could go on a holiday to Christchurch and your parents could drive the family car into the lion’s enclosure to watch them feed at Orana Park (those were the days – health and safety consisted of ‘wind up the windows’).

Mostly, lions and other big cats were things to experience on the telly (Born Free, Daktari, The Wonderful World of Disney) or on the page. And the place to find lions was in Narnia. I’m not sure how old I was when I first started reading the C.S. Lewis series. Maybe seven? But the books were my companions throughout childhood, constantly re-read. I have since read them to my sons.

Narnia was my main exposure to big cats when I was youn. image from Adrian Paterson.

The cast of characters constantly changes. My favourite book, A horse and his boy, doesn’t even feature the main characters for more than a couple pages. But one constant throughout is Aslan. The lion and ruler/god of the world. Aslan is always lurking about somewhere in each story. I liked Lewis’s portrayal of Aslan as ‘not a tame lion’. There was always a little menace and unpredictability.

Of course, with adult eyes, the christian overtones are hard to miss. But as a kid there was just some great adventures on the Dawn Treader, or underneath ruined cities, hiding from Ice Queens, always winter and never Christmas, time running differently in different world, and lots of talking animals.

This is a long-winded way of saying, as a New Zealand zoologist, I never expected to work on big cats. Any yet, three of my last papers published have been on cats. ‘Normal’ cat movements in natural areas, the discovery of marbled cats in Nepal, and now leopard diversity in Pakistan.

PhD student Muhammad Asad has long had a fascination with leopards. In his home country there is is very little knowledge as to even where leopards are still present. Leopards are found from throughout Africa to the Far East of Asia. There are a number of leopard subspecies spread over this distribution. Pakistan remains a mystery.

Muhammad came to Lincoln University to further his wildlife management knowledge. He has spent the last three years trying to shed light on leopards in Pakistan. He has used cameras to try and record them in their normal habitat. He has found and measured a bunch of their skulls to look at how much individuals vary. He has spent time setting up education programmes for local communities to better understand and better co-habit with their leopards.

Not a tame lion…. Image from Adrian Paterson

Muhammad has also collected tissue samples from leopards, mostly around northern Pakistan. He was able to look at the DNA of these samples and compare to existing datasets of leopard DNA from other parts of the world to try and figure out which type of leopards are present in Pakistan. In a new paper in PeerJ Muhammad and other authors from Lincoln University and wildlife departments in Pakistan report on their findings.

Overall, 43 samples were assessed. Unsurprisingly, the genetic variation clearly indicated that the Pakistani leopards belonged to the Asian group rather than Arabian or African. There was evidence for three different subspecies being present in Pakistan. About a third were similar to sequences found from the Persian Panthera pardus saxicolor. Most of the rest were consistent with the Indian Panthera pardus fusca.

One individual had a third type of genes that were close to but not the same as the Persian subspecies. This has not be recorded before and might suggest that there is (or was) another subspecies in the region. More samples are required to follow this up.

Caught on camera, a Pakistani leopard. Image from Muhammad Asad.

No surprises overall though. Pakistan seems to be a contact zone for the subspecies from further west and the one from further east. Individuals with the different subspecies types were found in the same location suggesting that they may be able to interbreed.

Both subspecies are threatened throughout their known range. Pakistan is an important addition to the distribution of leopards. Management of Pakistani leopards helps to maintain important populations where these subspecies overlap.

I am excited that, even here in New Zealand, we are able to play our part in big cat conservation. We don’t want the future to be tame. Hopefully, Muhammad’s work is going to help preserve these marvellous cats in the wild. It sounds like something that Aslan would want as well.

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