About two weeks ago, the serenity of a small town of Bohikhuwa in Assam’s Golaghat district was shattered when news of an adult leopard injuring two students, made the rounds. In the wake of the incident, within hours the leopard was tracked down by anxious villagers armed with sticks, stones and rods and was whacked to death before forest officials could reach the area. After killing the animal, villagers distributed its meat among themselves as an act of reprisal against the beast, which was claimed to be terrifying their neighborhood.
These are few of many incidents, where leopards have been killed ruthlessly by an enraged mob for entering human territory. Such incidents, which have intensified in the past two years, bring to light the perpetual conflict between man and animal. Human interference has resulted in a loss of natural habitat for animals. These animals stray into human dwellings, causing further conflict. We lost about 358 leopards in the year 2011 according to the data provided by the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), India. Out of these, about 52 per cent were results of man-animal conflict. The figures also show that leopard deaths across India have been multiplying since 2007 with most of the casualties happening in Uttarakhand, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. Ironically, leopards are in Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and enjoy the highest degree of protection.
Last year in March, after a leopard mauled three people from Dhamdhar village in Adnala Range of Kalagarh Forest Division in Uttarakhand, it was captured and put inside a cage by Forest Department officials, who were about to transport the cage to the nearest range office at Rathuwadhab. As they started to leave, the officials were surrounded by a mob of villagers who started attacking the caged leopard using rods and sickles. The mob then doused the leopard with kerosene and burnt it alive.“These animals’ habitats are being fragmented, degraded and lost. Human presence is constantly extending and shrinking wild habitats. As long this continues, we should expect conflicts to escalate. As the leopards attack and feed on livestock and also attack human beings, their presence amongst people causes fear. With this kind of widespread negative impact, it is natural for the affected local population to view these animals as an enemy,” says Dr Ravi Chellam, Wildlife Biologist and Conservation Scientist, Former Director, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), India.
Last January, a leopard was attacked after it mauled a pregnant woman in Guwahati (Assam). The same leopard, a week earlier, had attacked a 20-year-old man, when he strayed out in the fields. The leopard’s natural habitat is being affected due to forest degradation and about 50 per cent of wild cats are being forced to stay in close proximity to human territory. The leopard is a versatile animal and is not selective about its habitat. One of the reasons is the availability of food in agricultural areas adjoining forests. Leopards, owing to their adaptability are found in varied landscapes and they also seem to survive and reproduce successfully in human-modified environments. It is not only development projects in the forest that have been depriving the leopards of prey, but the Forest Bill 2006, passed by the Indian Government, which permits traditional Adivasis the right to settle inside National parks, has accelerated the animosity.
“The man-animal conflict has been prevalent since ages due to increasing human density near forest peripheries. Since the forest department is barely able to protect the protected areas, protection outside the buffer zones is more difficult. As per rough estimates around 40,000 families are said to live near the buffer zones across all 41 tiger reserves,” states Dr Anish Andheria, Director of Science, Natural History and Photography with Sanctuary Asia. Activists opine that since no effort has been made for a leopard census, which would show the exact number of leopards existing within and outside protected areas, no efforts are being taken for its protection. “We could be losing one leopard every single day across India to poachers and lynch mobs,” Andheria explains.
According to Pravin Pardeshi, Chief Secretary (Forest Ministry), “Somehow constructing homes in the corridors of forests has been legalized by the government. When these people attack the animal no action is taken on them and even the Forest Department is not allowed to use weapons to disperse or prevent the mob from attacking the animal,” he says. For Vidya Athreya, a wildlife biologist and a leopard researcher who has carried out research in agricultural fields near Pune and Akola district in Maharashtra, people and leopards in most parts have lived accepting each other’s presence and the cats are not killed the way as it is portrayed sometimes. “Leopards are highly adaptable and live close to villages and our work has shown that they mostly live without harming people. But when they are captured and released in an unknown area, they attack people near the release site,” she says. According to her, people have not yet accepted that non-wilderness areas can support wildlife and they expect all leopards be confined in forests.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), which monitors tiger reserves in the country last year, had proposed to set up a five-member committee for review of leopard mortality due to conflict with humans. This committee, which besides looking into the mortality of leopards arising out of conflict would also suggest mitigation measures. The organization along with Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had also issued guidelines in 2008 for ‘Project Tiger’ to manage and handle man-animal conflict agreeing to pay Rs 10 lakh to the villagers for their rehabilitation from the core areas. “We have worked on reducing loss and fragmentation of leopard habitats, trying to bring in potential habitats under the purview of protection,” states Sanjay Gubbi, a scientist with Nature Conservation Foundation and a former head of Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Recently Assam’s State Environment and Forest Minister, Rockybul Hussain announced a help line where people can report incidents of leopards straying into residential areas after a leopard was killed at Adingiri hill in Guwahati.
“The problem is that the management is not empathizing with people’s needs, while rendering medical care or taking steps to reduce the risk from leopard attacks. Currently, the management’s style of functioning conveys that wildlife is more important than the safety of local people and hence local communities tend to take the law into their own hands. This is an issue, which needs research understanding and hands-on engagement to manage, control and resolve it. We need to view this problem as part of the larger development and land use planning debate and not merely as a wildlife conservation issue,” explains Dr Chellam.
The Forest Ministry on the other hand is in the process of reinforcing its anti-poaching system of informers to ensure that the corridors between the sanctuaries and human territories remain protected. “We are promoting a programme in over 100 villages to provide bio-gas and cooking gas to villagers so that they don’t have to enter the forested areas. We are also planning to increase the wildlife corridor areas near National Parks and Tiger Reserves,” says Pardeshi.
Nevertheless, it is the unavailability of trained guards and equipment that has been making the situation all the more complex experts opine. The establishment of Rapid Response Units (RRU), whose job would entail capturing and rehabilitating the animals, while communicating with the public through different channels is becoming the need of the hour. “Whenever there is a contingency of man-animal confrontation, the time taken by the forest officials to respond is more, which results in escalation of the conflict. Why isn’t there a constant presence of the RRU in the territories where leopards are sighted? The forest department also lacks vets, equipment and access to tranquilize the animal,” states Dr Andheria.
This is also turning out to be an international issue and has been receiving sharp criticism from people across the globe via social networking sites. Recently, after news of several leopards being lynched made the rounds, international wildlife activists started a signature campaign on a petition site naming it -- Does India deserve big cats like the leopard? Stop killing them! Through the campaign they aim to collect 10,000 signatures and forward it to the Environment Ministry of India and demand for action.
March 22, 2009: A leopard was beaten to death by the villagers of Udhampur, after it strayed into human settlements.
Feb 21, 2010: Villagers from Semarighatahi near Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary, beat a leopard to death after it had entered the village and attacked livestock.
January 13, 2011: A furious mob in a village in Haryana, whacked to death a leopard which strayed into their area. The video shot by a cameraman from MiD DAY did the rounds on the Internet prompting authorities to detain culprits.
January 20, 2011: Angry locals beat to death a leopard that attacked three persons near Gandarpur village between Chandaka Elephant Sanctuary and Bhubhaneswar. Celebrating the death, they put the animal’s carcass on display and posed for photographs.
January 23, 2011: In Faridabad, a leopard was brutally killed by a mob after it attacked a woman. The angry mob even broke tranquilizer guns brought by rescue teams.
March 13, 2011: Two leopards were killed by villagers after they attacked three people in Anandnagar, Badkhariya area in Katarniaghat wildlife sanctuary in Bahraich (UP).
December 18, 2011: A leopard was shot dead after it attacked three farmers in a village near Gurgaon, Haryana.
Feb 15, 2012: A leopard which strayed out of a forest near Bahadurgarh area in Haryana, was beaten to death by villagers with lathis and spears.
Feb 23, 2012: A leopard was beaten to death by residents of Mekhliganj, WB after it entered a tea garden and injured seven persons. Forest Department Officers were attacked by the villagers for arriving late.
March 29, 2012: Two leopards were found dead near Katarniaghat wildlife sanctuary.