In October last year, a leopard suspected of being a man-eater was captured in the Sariska National Park and transferred to a zoo in Jaipur. A month later, the zoo acquired another leopard from the same protected area which too was suspected of being a man-eater. The two big cats were released in early February. That they are back to their old ways is a sorry commentary on the state of wildlife management in the country.
At the Jaipur zoo, the two leopards were castrated. This is perplexing since there is scarcely any study that associates the sexual drive of the big cats with man-eating tendencies. That the leopards were released barely three months after they were captured is even more difficult to fathom. Studies warn of the dangers of releasing predators after captivity since the animal has lived through a period of stress. In a trap cage, the leopard does not need to hunt for food. In fact, in captivity it comes into contact with people who feed it. Wildlife biologists point out that keeping a leopard in captivity for months with frequent contact with humans is not correct if the animal is to be released later. In any case, among the big cats, the leopard is the most familiar with the ways of humans. It is scared of humans, though, and prefers avoiding them. A suspected man-eater whose familiarity with the ways of humans has increased during captivity is, however, a different creature. It’s anybody’s guess what this highly stressed territorial animal is likely do in an unfamiliar environment.
Rajasthan’s wildlife authorities have spoken in different voices about the events that led to the release of the leopards. The state’s wildlife warden has refuted reports that Rajasthan’s forest minister had directed the “rehabilitation” of the leopards. But the deputy director of the Sariska National Park told this paper that he had recommended, “that these man-eaters should be kept in a zoo. It’s for you to find out how they were released”. It’s not just Sariska. Parks in Rajasthan and other parts of the country are rife with animal-human conflict. In 2015, a man-eating tiger created terror in villages in the vicinity of Ranthambore National Park. In 2014 a man-eating tigress had caused havoc in Dudhwa National Park. That these conflicts have increased even when there is a lot of research on the behaviour of big cats shows that park managers are either unaware of these studies or are constrained by other reasons to not pay heed to them.