Updated: November 28, 2016 10:50:44 am
Last Tuesday, Delhi was thrilled to discover a resident leopard by its river. Within 72 hours, officials decided to trap and shift the big cat to Uttarakhand’s Rajaji national park or Delhi zoo. The trigger was the lynching of another leopard in Haryana’s Sohna, within the national capital region, on Thursday.
While worrying for the Yamuna leopard’s safety, officials wondered if the animal strayed from ‘its group’ and ‘natural habitat’ and if it would keep wandering far and wide, causing trouble. The media, too, described both Yamuna and Sohna leopards as ‘stray’. Some even rationalised Thursday’s mob violence as a result of the inability of the police and wildlife forces to take timely action. It is possibly rare that officials deciding on a leopard’s fate actually think that the solitary cat lives in groups (they at times form pairs though). But the perception that leopards belong to faraway forests is indeed common.
If a leopard is found amidst people, most believe, it must have lost its way to land up there. Or there must be a forest famine that made the poor animal move out looking for food. The only remedy, they believe, is to catch the tramp and put it back in some remote forest or, if we are in a punishing mood, the nearest zoo. And if the authorities fail to do that, it’s natural that lynch mobs take over in self defence.
This perception is the problem. Animals don’t stray. Try to get rid of your house cat by abandoning it many miles from home. If it survives the traffic, it will invariably find its way back. So grant the big cat its superior awareness of its coordinates and purpose. It always knows where it is. And why.
A leopard spotted in a village cropland or city outskirts is indeed looking for food. But not necessarily because there is nothing to hunt in forests. In fact, leopards make no fuss about prey pedigree. Some may go exclusively on non-wild diet. That is how they evolved to live around people — using secondary forests or even suitable cropland as cover during the day and walking the human neighbourhoods after sunset.
With people around, there is always food. Livestock, dogs, garbage dumps. So given a patch in the vicinity to lie low during day hours, leopards will always be there among us. They are the most adaptable of all cats, big or small, and great survivors.
When we rarely create fresh cover — sugarcane fields or urban biodiversity parks, for example — leopards may get to extend their range. But with even the last few forest patches fast disappearing around towns and villages, they are actually on the run with their presence shrinking.
So if you spot a leopard where you did not expect any, like those did in the cropland of Sohna on Thursday, chances are that the animal is not a new arrival, that it — and generations before it — has always been using that space without ever blowing their cover. And without ever harming people.
Now just because it is sighted does not mean that the animal means harm. Of course, both sides will panic in such a situation. Panic triggers two responses: flee or fight. If the leopard gets surrounded by a crowd before it can slip away, which is the case most often, it will attack. There will be human injuries followed by the predictable climax in a mob-versus-one.
From Dibrugarh to Rajasthan, lynching of leopards have become routine across India. They are often hung from trees, even burned alive. Those tranquillised or trapped are no luckier. In Guwahati alone, for example, 10 leopards were captured in 2014. Of these, four died of injuries soon after. In any case, whether dead or held captive for life, it’s one leopard less in the wild.
So is catching and releasing the animal ‘back’ to a forest the solution? That is what the mob wants authorities to do every time a leopard is sighted. That is what authorities are planning to do with the Yamuna leopard as a preemptive masterstroke. Unfortunately, that is the very recipe of disaster.
Cats are territorial. If removed, they try to trace their way back to where they belong. Now imagine a leopard — traumatised by and possibly injured during capture, captivity and transportation — trying to walk hundreds of miles through unfamiliar territories and running into people it has learnt to despise. No wonder the zones of most acute conflict are around the leopard release sites.
By contrast, a leopard in its own traditional family territory is a safe bet. As a cub, it learnt the area-specific dos and don’ts from its mother. It has observed and learnt how to avoid chance encounters and when to lie low. It is familiar with the people around and their habits. If routine precautions, such as not defecating outdoors or not leaving children unattended in the open, are followed, living with a neighbourhood leopard is a lot safer than crossing the road or driving that kills around one and a half lakh every year in India.
Each of India’s at least 12,000 leopards must make a kill every week and most of them live among people, by far the easiest prey. Yet, human victims do not account for 0.001 per cent of over six lakh kills leopards make annually. Even most of those rare tragedies are of our own making — the result of capturing and translocating dozens of leopards, rampant poaching that often leaves cubs unschooled or plain bravado of lynch mobs.
If anything, their proximity to people has made leopards relatively easy meat for poachers. Estimates based on body part seizures show that on an average four leopards are poached every week.
So next time you spot a leopard, give the cat space and let it slip away. Crowd management is the most crucial primary response that help avoid injuries and save lives. Never surround the animal blocking its escape routes. A cute house cat can become a handful if cornered. Why do that to a large wild cat and then blame it?
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