Those were my childhood days in the summer of 1960, when my father was posted at Ballabhgarh, Haryana. I can still recall one of the incidents that left me spellbound as a child. On a regular pleasant evening my father returned from his work and called me and my other siblings to show something in a wrapped handkerchief. Unfolding it he showed us a tiger dropping (excreta) which he found in the adjoining Aravalis. It was then I became amazed at the existence of tigers so close to the city. Years passed by and due to population increase and development around, we almost forgot about the traces of the tiger my father had found. Although no data is available on when we lost the last tiger in the Aravali Belt around Delhi, certainly we still do have leopards in the area.
After over five decades, on Feb 20, 2015, while going through the Times of India newspaper, I found news of a leopard death in Usmanpur, which is in the north east area of Delhi. This is the fourth leopard death in a row around the National Capital Region and perhaps 9th within the last 9 months. A leopard carcass was recovered from ITC golf course, Gurgaon, on 16th April, 2014. As I inquired further with the forest department, it came as a shock that not just one but 4 leopards had died in the same vicinity. Gurgaon is the least likely place in India to have leopards.
As they say “A leopard cannot change his spots.” So is it we humans who need to change? But a much bigger question here is, if people and large carnivores like leopards share a landscape; can coexistence between the two survive? The crumbling of forests and wildlife habitats close to the cities is apparently becoming a grave concern in extermination of wildlife. Although, by and large, the local leopard population tries to steer clear of humans, at times conflict is inevitable, either because people simply see a leopard and create havoc or in some cases because a leopard starts visiting human settlements in search of goats, cattle and even dogs, as its prey is dwindling due to human encroachment. The human-leopard conflict isn’t anything new to us but we generally turn a blind eye to its repercussions. The repercussions do affect us but it largely involves the leopards. Humans still have a shelter but the leopards, unfortunately, it seems, are fast losing one and we still take pride in mob lynching or poisoning of this otherwise harmless creature.
About two years ago, I saw pugmarks of a female leopard on the backyard of my Ashram in Sainik Farms. It did not surprise me much, as my ashram shares its boundary with Asola wildlife sanctuary of Delhi. I immediately contacted the Delhi Wildlife SOS to reconfirm if there were any traces of leopard existence in that area and yes, I was right. About three months later, I read a story in a newspaper about a leopard which was trapped in concertina wires of a boundary wall of DLF farms, Chattarpur. I somehow believe it was the same leopard whose pugmarks were found behind my Ashram.
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. Aravalis adjoining Delhi, especially along Gurgaon-Faridabad highway, connects Asola Bhati with the rest of the patchy jungle belt of Haryana and Rajasthan. It can serve as an important wildlife corridor, if conserved. In my opinion, Aravalis have been the leopards’ traditional habitat. There is enough wild prey in the scrub forest. There are ravines too, which make it perfect for leopards to live stealthily.
In November, 2014, a fully 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 has probably just started to unfold. In December 2014, an adult male leopard had been paying surprise visits to the villagers of Abupur, Ghaziabad, and wandering around the sugarcane fields keeping terrified villagers at bay. After a few days of sightings, its 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.
In February this year, while taking a stroll behind my ashram on the fringes of Asola wildlife sanctuary, I was thrilled to see the re-emergence of pugmarks of another female leopard. I have had the privilege of living and sharing great moments with leopards in the forests. It is one of the most beautiful creations around us. We just need a little understanding to give it space to live.
It is estimated that Haryana houses about 25 or so leopards but the major challenge is to ensure their safety. One of the threats comes from some major roads passing through the leopard habitat (NH-8, Palwal-Sohna-Rewari, Gurgaon-Faridabad highway etc). While in a population of over 2 crores, not even a single human being was killed by the leopard, in the last two years, a total of nine leopards, constituting a large part of its total population, perhaps, was exterminated by our so-called civilized race. It is tragic to see our intolerant and ignorant behavior towards these creatures.
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 not able to put a halt to the rising number of leopard deaths? There does not seem to be a definite answer for 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 linked so that a larger habitat is available for the leopards, giving them fewer chances of straying and ending up being prey to urbanization. It’s a universal truth that if humans destroy wildlife and its habitat, the leopards will come even closer and that too without any prior notice. We must preserve its viable population by preserving some wilderness around us.
(For already published stories and films on wildlife which have run on National Geographic channel, Doordarshan National channel and Doordarshan (India), please log on to www.rahejagroup.org)