Three weeks ago, two leopards held in Jaipur zoo for over three months were released back into the Sariska tiger reserve by the Rajasthan forest department. Four villagers have since died in leopard attacks, barely 25 km from the area where the big cats were released.
Captured and declared ‘man-eaters’ in Sariska last year, and surgically castrated in the zoo to “check aggressiveness” in captivity, the leopards were considered fit and safe for release, say sources in the forest department, after forest minister Gajendra Khimsar sought their rehabilitation.
WATCH VIDEO | 4 Villagers Dead After Leopards Held In Jaipur Zoo Released Back Into Sariska Tiger Reserve 3 Weeks Ago
Khimsar told The Indian Express he was against keeping wild animals locked up but denied he had decided on the release of the leopards in question.
“We cannot keep so many animals in zoos. But I am not a wildlife scientist. So the wildlife wing of the (forest) department looks into these issues and sends to me for approval,” he said. “For example, they found that tiger T-24 (the ‘man-eater’ of Ranthambhore held in captivity) was not medically fit for soft release in Sariska and I agreed.”
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Asked about the deaths in Sariska, Khimsar said, “I’ll call a meeting to discuss safety and other issues. Human life is invaluable.”
Rajasthan chief wildlife warden G V Reddy also said the minister had “no role in the release of rescued panthers” and that the decision was taken at his office. He did not comment on how the forest department concluded that the leopards would not pose any danger to people after their release.
Sources in the department maintain that the animals were “forced on Sariska under pressure” after authorities at Jaipur’s Jhalana national park — the first choice for the release site — refused to accept them.
Left to do the firefighting in Sariska, deputy director Balaji Kari was cryptic when he was asked why he accepted the problem-leopards. “When the two leopards were caught here last year, I wrote that these man-eaters should be kept in a zoo. It is for you to find out how they were released back,” he said.
Studies have long warned of the dangers of releasing predators after prolonged captivity since it leads to acute stress and loss of fear. Even worse, if released away from their territory, leopards try to make their way home through unfamiliar areas where they are more likely to run into people.
The two male leopards in question were captured on October 14 and November 4 last year after two people died in leopard attacks in September, around 20 km from the tiger reserve’s eastern boundary. Before that, there was no record of leopards killing people in Sariska in recent history.
Post-capture, no attacks were reported till the forest department released the leopards, one by one, in the tiger reserve’s Kalighati area on January 28 and February 1. Within a week, the killings started afresh. All four deaths between February 5 and 12 have been reported at places halfway between where the animals were captured and subsequently released.
While the jury is still out on the identity of the animals behind the four killings, the timing and locations of the attacks make the released animals — possibly stressed and fearless and homing back to where they were captured from — the prime suspects (see map).
“I cannot say at what level the decision was taken. But I made it clear that specific scientific inputs and a detailed understanding of the release area are required before putting any problem-animal held in captivity back in the wild. Also, if released at all, it must be collared,” Valmik Thapar, an expert member of the Rajasthan state wildlife board, said.
The two leopards in question were not radio-collared before release. The zoo did not retain the animals’ DNA samples that could be matched with the DNA obtained from leopard saliva found on the recent victims.
The forest department set up trap cages on February 7 and has already trapped two other leopards — a female each on February 8 and 17. They will now be DNA-tested to verify against the saliva samples.
On ground, more than a hundred forest and police personnel are combing the conflict zone with camera traps and guns. A drone was deployed for a day before it was sent back. Six trap cages are also in place.
As life comes to an abrupt halt after sundown and roads empty, villagers say they have never had a problem with leopards though they frequently encounter the big cats.
“Never in my life,” said Kanhaiya Lal in Jaitpur village. “Yes, they took goats, but people? Something must have gone wrong there” — pointing to the adjacent hills of Sariska where a deadly game of capture-and-release is still unfolding.
Sariska is not the first laboratory of capture-and-release experiments in Rajasthan. In Udaipur, the frequency of capturing leopards from the Rajsamand area and releasing them in and around the Kumbhalgarh forests increased sharply in the last couple of years. This has not helped the worsening human-leopard conflict in the region.
Asked if the department was discouraging capture-release as a policy, given the dangerous fallout in most places, Udaipur chief conservator of forests Rahul Bhatnagar said the department was trying to build awareness among locals. “The problem is due to huge mining dumps where these leopards settle,” he said.
Rajasthan chief wildlife warden Reddy underlined that the state was “not going after leopards” and captured only those animals that strayed and could not be driven back to forests.
“We treat them for injuries and diseases in nearby zoos. After ascertaining their full recovery on the advice of veterinarians, the animals are released in the same locality where they were caught,” Reddy said in an email response.
Experts, however, remain sceptical.”It is one thing to check and release an animal immediately. But how can any veterinary test assess the psychological damage done to an animal due to months spent in captivity? Releasing such animals in popular demand on social media results in conflict and alienates locals whose support is a must for conservation,” Dharmendra Khandal, wildlife biologist and special invitee to the state wildlife standing committee, said.