Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine February 6, 2005 as "Stealthy Comeback"
Place: Narayangaon, Junnar Forest Division, Pune District, Maharashtra State
Name: Shri Krishna Thorve
Victim: 8 year old, male
Date: 7 Feb 2003
Time: 7 pm
Krishna was playing in the open courtyard of his house. His grandmother was close by washing dishes under a lone light that cast eerie shadows on the wall. The leaves of the tall stalks of corn that surrounded the house swayed and rustled in the cool breeze. Suddenly the power went off and the whole place went dark. As the boy’s eyes grew accustomed to the moonlight, he saw a dark shape move behind the corn. Fear gripped his heart and he ran toward his grandmother just as a leopard pounced on him. While the old lady held on tightly to the child, the leopard’s teeth sank firmly into the boy’s leg. On hearing their cries the boy’s mother rushed out of the house and startled the leopard. The big cat let go and disappeared into the fields of corn as quietly as it had come. Krishna very nearly became another statistic - last year 18 people were killed by leopards in this region.
Until recently most of us, city-types, believed that such stories could only be read in books by Jim Corbett or Kenneth Anderson. Yet in recent months, incidents such as this have been increasingly reported in the media. Have leopards made a quiet come-back since the days when they were hounded out as vermin? Are they re-colonizing the country? Is it a case of conservation success?
Found throughout India, the leopard is the most adaptable of all big cats. It lives in the valleys of the wet tropical rainforests, up in the cool temperate mountains and down in the dry tree plantations of the plains, within protected forests and outside of them. It can slink through any overgrown area without people being wiser. The leopard eats almost anything it can catch - from insects, rats and frogs to larger animals like deer and pig - and will also scavenge for a living. One leopard lived off medical waste dumped in the backyard of a hospital in Valparai before being trapped. This ability to survive on anything that’s available means that the leopard does not need vast forests to maintain itself as does the tiger or lion. The Wildlife Institute of India estimates that there are 14000 leopards in India, of which about 7000 live outside protected forests. The apex predator, the tiger, has been exterminated throughout most of its range, leaving the field open for the stealthy leopard.
After every human fatality, the Forest Department is compelled to do something. The officials went by the book - the Indian Wildlife Protection Act states that the first option in dealing with dangerous animals is capture and translocation. If that is not possible, the Act allows the animals to be kept in captivity and as a last resort, killed.
The typical modus operandi was to trap leopards near human settlements and release them deep inside the forest, away from people. For years this is how carnivore conflict situations were dealt with throughout India. But the problem hasn’t gone away. We hear of more and more leopard problems cropping up all over the country. Contrary to expectations, moving leopards around has only aggravated the problem. Within the last three years, in Maharashtra state alone, 150 leopards were released into Protected Areas after being trapped near human settlements.
We’d like to believe that translocation gives individual animals another chance, but the reality is quite different. What we are doing is putting them out of sight, deep in the forest under the belief that wild animals are resilient and will survive all odds. In India, despite years of translocation, there has been no attempt to follow the released animals to study whether they survive or not. Wildlife biologists, Vidya Athreya, Sanjay Thakur, Sujoy Chaudhuri and veterinarian Aniruddha Belsare (funded by the Wildlife Protection Society of India) studied the leopard problem for a year. They interviewed local villagers, documented every casualty and came up with some clear conclusions. As translocation is usually used to augment the population of endangered animals and, not as a way of dealing with problem animals, the team paid particular attention to this.
About 100 kilometers east of Mumbai is Junnar Forest Division, a vast patchwork of fields interrupted by tree plantations. Natural leopard prey was virtually non-existent here. But domestic animals were readily available - dogs, goats and calves. Leopards were known to take livestock here and human mortality was minimal. The local people did not consider it a big problem, but in the year 2000, the situation turned serious. Deliberate attacks on humans became alarmingly common. Narayangaon, a little settlement in northern Junnar, was the nerve centre of the conflict between man and cat. The team chose this area to do their study.
Vidya and her team tagged 40 trapped leopards with transponder microchips before they were translocated and released. Three of them were trapped again after people were attacked in the new sites. Some of these fresh zones of conflict had no history of man-eaters in living memory. In such situations, when people are suddenly forced to deal with marauding leopards in their neighbourhood, they will often take the law into their own hands and decide the fate of the cats by exterminating them. Already there are reports of many leopards being killed by villagers in retaliation for the losses they have suffered. Typically when wildlife is perceived as a danger and a liability, it compromises the very basis of conservation.
The second problem is that leopards are territorial and when re-located some will try very hard to get back home. In one astounding example of determination and homing instinct, a leopard translocated from its range in South Africa walked 540 kilometers home, the distance between Chennai and Hyderabad. But India lacks such vast wild spaces. Any desperate leopard attempting to return home will only walk into more trouble with more people. Could this be the reason leopards show up in unexpected places like Chennai and Kozhikode?
The other problem to consider is the impact of translocation on resident leopards. Ravi Chellam, a cat expert, says there is no existing suitable habitat (forests brimming with prey, and remote from human habitation) to move problem leopards to. Since all optimum forests already have resident leopards, translocation means re-locating cats into areas staked out by others. In the ensuing conflict for territory, the intruder or the resident is likely to get killed or driven out. If either of them is a mother leopard with cubs, the little ones will be the first victims of such confrontations. When many leopards are released in one area as usually happens, the resident territory holder may have to fight each of these intruders in turn, weakening its ability to hang on to its domain. The resultant upheaval in the leopard population will only escalate the problem for local people.
The graphs that accompany the team’s study are very revealing - the spike indicating leopard releases match a similar spike in the attacks on livestock and man for the same period of time. In Junnar, in the year 2000-2001, the problem was contained within an area of 1400 square kilometers with a casualty rate of 189 head of livestock and 2 humans. Post 2001, when translocations became the norm, the trouble zone nearly doubled to 2400 square kilometers. Mortality rocketed to 348 domestic animals (not including dogs) and more disastrously, 29 humans. The attacks abated only after 62 leopards were trapped and moved out (outsourcing the problem), with the result that now Junnar is nearly a leopard-free zone. Is the only solution to the leopard problem removing every single one of them?
While India’s 35,000 annual rabies deaths hasn't led to a moratorium on stray dogs, leopards are made to pay a heavy price for every misdemeanour from mauling man and lifting livestock to wandering into fields and merely being seen. If we are really serious about this comeback of our wildlife, people also need to make adjustments to their lives and lifestyles. They need to understand that unless a leopard takes to man-eating or livestock-lifting regularly, it should be left alone.
We could make settlements safer by changing cropping patterns but it’s impractical to ask farmers to uproot their sugarcane and tea bushes. Almost all these areas also offer food - livestock, goats, and dogs. People living in leopard country will need financial help to reinforce flimsy mud or bamboo houses against a marauding leopard. Livestock should be securely penned, separately from people, at night. It’s a loss to a villager if a leopard kills a goat but driving it away from its meal only makes it worse. The hungry animal will just go out and kill another goat or calf. Livestock can be insured against leopard depredations so losses can be compensated. Villagers need to be taught how to avoid leopards and what to do in case of a confrontation. A very successful education campaign helped local people in Australia understand how to live with man-eating salt-water crocodiles when their populations bounced back. A similar education campaign, “Living With Leopards” has to be initiated to address this issue.