A single village adjoining the forest in Mandvi taluka of Surat district has been the target of continuing leopard attacks in the past five years, so much so that the owner of one particular farm on the bank of the Tapi river, where leopards have been captured as many as 10 times, sold off his farm.
Forest officials have trapped as many as 20 leopards in separate incidents from Vareli village in the past five years; a leopard cage is permanently left in the agricultural fields there to capture the solitary hunters. On Sunday, a big cat got trapped in the cage. It was taken deep into the forest area, where it was released. This is the routine but the human-animal conflict continues.
The farm from where the big cat was captured earlier belonged to Yusuf Makda. Fed up with the leopard menace, he sold the farm to Sohel Shaikh and Juned Shaikh.
The Shaikh brothers grow banana, sugarcane and some vegetables and tried their hand at rearing poultry at first, and then goats and cattle, but gave up animal husbandry because of the frequent leopard attacks. “Our field is an easy hunting ground for leopards as the Tapi river flows nearby and they find safe hiding places in the banana and sugarcane fields,” Sohel Shaikh said, speaking to the Indian Express. “After failing in rearing poultry, goat and cattle due to the leopard attacks, finally we have started rearing horses.”
Why big cats have moved from Dangs
Leopards earlier populated Dangs district, which has dense forests. However, deforestation depleted the water reserves and forced prey to migrate, pushing the leopards also out to the neighbouring Tapi and Navsari districts. The sugarcane fields of these districts provide the perfect hideouts for the leopards to hunt domestic animals. The leopard migration has not only led to human-animal conflict but resulted wild animals being run over in road accidents.
Chief conservator of Forests, Surat Division, Puneet Nayyar echoed Shaikh’s words about leopards finding a safe hunting ground in Vareli. “Vareli village has around 20 kilometres of deep forest with greenery and tall trees,” he said. “The big cat easily identifies it as a safe habitat and we have come to know that some of them return to the original place (from which they are captured),”
There have been attacks on humans too. “A leopard attacked one of our nephews and even two labourers, but now they are alright and able to work,” Shaikh said, adding that they’re now used to seeing the big cats so often that they’re not scared anymore. “Now the labourers are prepared. They carry around wooden staffs with them. We don’t flee on seeing the leopards now.”
But they haven’t found any permanent means to prevent the entry of leopards into the farm, Shaikh said. As for the villagers, having often sighted a leopard on the prowl at night, they have built enclosed sheds in which to lock up their cattle at night.
Due to the leopard menace, even dogs have vanished from Vareli and neighbouring villages. Animal welfare activist Jagdish Parekh, a resident of Mandvi taluka said earlier there were monkeys, peacocks and dogs in several villages such as Vareli, Patni, Gavachi, Kharoli, Piparia and Kosadi in Mandvi taluka but in the past few years, they have disappeared. “The monkeys and peacocks have migrated to other places due to the leopard attacks,” Parekh said.
Sources in the forest department said that as per the 2016 census, a total 40 leopards had been counted in the Mandvi, Mahuva and Umarpada taluka in Surat district.
“We have found a growth in the birth rate of leopards in Surat district and it is estimated to 25 per cent compared with the past two census (2011 and 2016),” said Nayyar.
In an attempt to track the animals, the forest department is planning to start radio-tagging the leopards. “In the next two months, we will start radio tagging the leopards, by inserting a microchip under the skin of the ones captured,” Nayyar said. This will help forest officials identify the leopards and their locations.
In welfare measures, the forest department is also taking care to ensure that wild animals don’t die of thirst in the scorching summer. “This summer season, in the scorching heat, and less availability of water, the wild animals become stressed. We have therefore made 70 water pools in Surat district to ensure that no animal or bird dies of thirst,” Nayyar said.
Forest department staffers regularly check and refill the pools. “We have made such water pools in areas where leopards have been sighted often, such as Mandvi, Mangrol, and Umarpada areas in Surat district,” Nayyar said.
While the human-animal conflict continues on the one side, the large number of leopards in the region has also prompted the government to come up with a plan to leverage it for tourism. Sources said that a few months ago the state government declared that it was planning to hold leopard safaris on 50 hectares of forest land at Khodamba village in Mandvi taluka of Surat district. Similarly, another leopard safari park would be developed at Waghai taluka in Dangs district. According to the 2016 census, there are around 52 leopards in Dangs.
“We are working on the master plan of a leopard safari park which will boost the tourism industry also. Once the plan is ready we will submit it to the Central zoo authorities,” Nayyar said. “The approximate estimated cost of the leopard safari park in Surat is around Rs 14 crore. The work is in progress and we hope that in the next two-and-a-half years, the park will be opened.”