India Today - - UPFRONT - PR­ERNA BIN­DRA Pr­erna Bin­dra is trustee of NGO Bagh and for­mer mem­ber of the Na­tional Board for Wildlife

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion by SAU­RABH SINGH

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