The “leopard run amok in Meerut” is a classic example of what not to do in an admittedly vexing, if not terrifying situation, of suddenly finding a predator in an urban jungle. Policemen running around with guns, media poking their cameras into the predator’s face for exclusive footage, a frenetic mob chasing it with stones and rods is a recipe for disaster. It further panics an already traumatised wild animal which will lash out in self-defence—when all that really needs to be done to is to control the frenzy, possibly calm the animal by ‘sheltering’ it from the crowd, and allow it safe passage to where it came from, or allowing the tranquilisation team to perform their duties.
Such instances of leopards amidst human habitation, sometimes with fatal consequences, appear to be increasing. In a recent horrifying incident, a leopard that ventured out of Gorumara National Park in north Bengal and into a village was beaten to death by a frenzied mob; a few months ago, pictures of a nawab posing over a fallen ‘man-eater’ in Himachal Pradesh made headlines. Earlier this month, a leopard was trapped in Aarey colony in Mumbai—the curious case of a metropolis that is learning to live with one of the world’s largest cats.
Why such severe conflict? There are no easy answers. While the loss, degradation, alteration of habitat and a sharp decline in its food base are key contributing factors, it is also a fact that leopards have always lived in proximity to human settlements, with surprisingly low levels of conflict—a fact that is rarely highlighted. Leopards live, mate and breed in degraded forests, fields, plantations and can survive on dogs, goats, pigs and smaller prey like hare and rats.
Ironically, one reason for the increasing conflict witnessed today lies in the way we are tackling it. A commonly practised solution is to trap the leopard from people-dense areas and release it in a forest elsewhere. This is counterproductive, as leopards have amazing homing instincts and try to make their way back—largely through human territory, therefore increasing the potential of attacks. A study in Junnar (Maharashtra—which harbours leopards in a human-dense landscape—by wildlife biologist Vidya Athreya revealed that leopard attacks rose by over 300 per cent between 2001 and 2003 when translocations were frequently resorted to. Hunting only serves to appease a panicked public, given that there is no way of establishing the problem animal.
But it is not just leopards. Operations are afoot to tackle the tigress that is believed to have killed seven people in Moradabad district, while further down south, a tiger was shot dead earlier this year in the Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu, after it was believed to have killed two people.
Incidents of elephants entering Bhubaneswar, Mysore, Coimbatore and Haridwar—cities abutting forests—are not infrequent. Human-elephant conflict has escalated across its range, with fatal consequences to both sides: Over 300 people lose their lives to elephants annually, while about 200 elephants are killed in conflict.
While there are specific concerns regarding each species, at the heart of the conflict is the destruction and fragmentation of wildlife habitats and corridors by mining, industrialisation and infrastructure projects, highways, canals and expanding human habitation. For instance, the mining (plus associated disturbances by heavy blasting, movement of machinery) in Jharkhand’s Saranda forest, a prime elephant habitat, has caused the animals to migrate in distress, peaking conflict in neighbouring villages and towns.
Take tigers: Protection efforts have stabilised tiger populations in some reserves, so young sub-adults trying to carve out their own territories move out of the reserve and straight into human settlements, and conflict. Tigers may have always moved in these fringe areas and beyond but such habitats have been hammered by, according to one estimate, a loss of 12,000 sq km in four years.
There are no easy solutions. A crucial mitigative measure is a sense of preparedness—a trained, well-equipped conflict mitigation team of the forest department working with the district administration and police, a swift response time, a robust and timely compensation scheme, as well as a ‘code of conduct’ for people to safeguard themselves in such situations.
In the long term, expansion of existing protected areas, conserving vital wildlife corridors, and planning and restricting drastic changes in natural landscapes is important. Unfortunately the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests reversed its own guidelines which insured wildlife scrutiny to elephant habitats and wildlife, perhaps owing to the fact that such forests have mining and other interests.
We need to change the way we handle conflict. When you have a leopard or a tiger or elephant in your backyard, quell that panic; chasing and crowding the animal, as well as loud noise make it more aggressive. Remember, the leopard fears you more than you do him.
Ironically, one reason for the increasing conflict witnessed today lies in the way we are tackling it.