Protect the spots Leopards in crisis
A growing concern about the loss of habitat and prey of the spotted cat has forced the masses to reflect deeply on the subject of human-wildlife conflicts.
Wildlife lovers celebrated the presence of Delhi's first properly documented leopard in recent times. And instantly, there was a contradiction. The headlines of November 25, 2016, were heart-wrenching.
A leopard was brutally beaten to death, by the residents of Mandawar village in Gurugram's Sohna area. While the forest department claimed to be present on the spot, they said that the villagers did not allow them to do their job. They took to attacking the leopard with stones, sticks, spades and what not. Strange, isn't it?
There is no denying the fact that it attacked eight people in the village, but how does one justify what the villagers did to the leopard? It probably had panicked with the crowd around and must have reacted, not to harm anyone, but to save itself. Shouldn't the forest department have tried to tranquillise it, especially when they claimed to be present on the spot and were fully equipped with tranquillisers, nets and a cage?
This is not the first time when a leopard had come out of its habitat and had been lynched to death by a mob. This reflects the failure of a system that's unable to control the situation when such circumstances arise, which eventually always lead to loss of lives of both the species, whether it's human or the animal.
On February 20, 2015, the news of a leopard's death was reported in Usmanpur, the northeast area of Delhi. This was the fourth reported incident of death in a row and ninth reported in between June 2014 and February 2015. There is a saying, "A leopard cannot change its spots." So is it us humans who need to change? The larger question, however, is, whether people and large carnivores like leopards who share a landscape; can coexist between the two foster?
The crumbling of forests and destruction of wildlife habitats is the grave reason behind the extermination of the wildlife. Although by and large, the local leopard population tries to steer clear of humans, but at times conflict becomes inevitable either because people simply see a leopard and create panic or because a leopard starts visiting near human settlements in search of goats, cattle and even dogs since its prey population is dwindling due to human encroachment.
The human-leopard conflict isn't new to us but we generally turn a blind eye to its repercussions, which involve us, but it largely affects the leopards. Humans still have a shelter but the leopards, unfortunately, are fast losing it. A study conducted for over four years by Wildlife Institute of India, Wildlife Conservation Society and the National Centre for Biological Sciences shows an 80 per cent decrease in India's leopard population over the last 100 years. Besides, we still take self-pride in mob lynching or poisoning of this otherwise harmless creature. Isn't it time for India to have a Project Leopard?
While Delhi has the Asola Bhati sanctuary in the Aravali hills and Rajasthan has the Sariska Tiger Reserve, the intervening Aravali areas in Haryana have no sanctuary or national park. The Aravalis adjoining Delhi especially along Gurugram-Faridabad highway connects Asola Bhati with the rest of the patchy jungle belt of Haryana and Rajasthan. It might serve as an important wildlife corridor if conserved truly. Aravalis have been the leopards' traditional habitat. There is enough wild prey in the scrub forest. Then there are ravines too, which makes it perfect for leopards to live stealthily.
In November 2014 a full-grown leopard was attempting to pass through the Delhi-Jaipur highway, having very little idea of what was going to transpire. The next few minutes brought with it the most terrible sight when an unidentified speeding vehicle ran over the animal making it lifeless. The tragic fate of leopards had probably just started to unfold.
A month later, that is, in December 2014, an adult male leopard had been paying surprise visits to the villagers of Abupur, Ghaziabad. He was seen wandering around the sugarcane fields keeping terrified villagers at bay. After a few days of sightings, the leopard's dead body was discovered in the sugarcane fields near the railway track. Just a day before that incident, another leopard carcass was found near Pachehra village in Loni, Ghaziabad. Although any foul play was ruled out by the forest department, the animal had reportedly died because of coming in contact with high-voltage wires laid by someone.
Is it the leopard, which seems to have forgotten its territory and dares to venture in the urban settlements or is it the authorities who are unable to put a halt on the rising number of leopard deaths? There isn't a definite answer to the same but ensuring a safe and rich prey base in leopard corridors is the need of the hour. The fragmented corridors need to be interlinked so that a larger habitat is made available to the leopards giving them fewer chances of straying away from their habitats and ending up being prey to urbanisation. Leopard is a hardy survivor and it probably enters a village in search of food, especially the stray dogs. The Yamuna Leopard had probably borne the brunt of its Gurugram's counterpart. The cloud on the horizon enforced it, to bid adieu to the Capital. Soon after the news of mob lynching of Gurugram leopard flooded in, the authorities were keen to capture and relocate the Yamuna Leopard, who despite being just a few hundred meters from human population respected its boundaries.
Cages were installed with live bait in the area the leopard was first spotted. The rising sun of Saturday, 10, 2016, brought news for the forest department. The authorities, wildlife SOS rushed to the spot near Jagatpur village of North Delhi. The curious locals too made a beeline for the spot. Amidst the rush, the leopard's convoy was taken to Delhi zoo, from where it was transported further to Mohund/ Dhaulkhand range of Rajaji Tiger Reserve, on the next evening.
This episode indeed brought a change in the mind-set of the city people. Another male leopard ventured into a household of a residential locality near Delhi-Ghaziabad border on the night of April 6, 2017 and kept all the residents on the tenterhooks attacking and injuring a 27-year-old man, a minor boy, and a cow. The family, however, locked the leopard inside the house and did not allow the agitated locals to injure it. The leopard could be tranquillised only around 6 am next morning by the forest department officials after a five-hour long ordeal. They transported it in a cage to a forest reserve in Saharanpur, about 180 kilometers away from Ghaziabad.
It was suspected that the animal may have ventured into the area from nearby river Hindon which is conducive to their movement. Leopard is known to travel 50-100km in fields during the night and many have ventured here. Whether it is the higher reaches of Uttarakhand or the financial capital of India, man-leopard coexistence is a reality. All it needs is a fair understanding of leopard's behaviour and awareness among the villagers, living on the fringes of our jungles. A leopard only needs a way to go back from where it has come and being on the top of food chain, this is a part of our duty. It's high time; we realize their importance in the ecosystem.
Being territorial animals, releasing a leopard or tiger in a new environment stresses the animal surely leading to territorial fights with native big cats, increasing the likelihood of it getting killed. In some cases, translocated animals try to return to their original territory which often brings them closer to human settlements, once again.
(For already published stories and films on wildlife by the writer, which have run on National Geographic channel, Doordarshan National channel and Doordarshan (India), please log on to www.rahejagroup.org).