A visit to a secluded and well-protected rescue centre reveals how the approach to the rescue and rehabilitation of leopards has evolved considerably since efforts first began around 2000.
News related to leopards and their encounters with humans is a staple item for consumption on some regional news TV channels. These channels could be showing a cornered leopard striking out at a crowd in a village or showroom; the lynching of an animal by a mob armed with sticks; or the plight of a thirsty leopard stuck in a well or with its head in a pot. Reports of straying leopards are common in a country where their natural habitat is shrinking, buffer zones between human habitations and forests are becoming ever smaller and repeated periods of drought have led to wild animals come out of safe zones as much in search of water as of prey.
The Indian leopard, Panthera pardus fusca, is a shy animal that adapts well to changes in its environment. This is what makes it able to live in closer proximity to humans. However, significant numbers of leopards are killed every year in human-animal conflicts. A survey conducted by Wildlife Institute of India estimated that 329 leopards were killed across India in 2014, and the numbers in 2015 till the month of September were already 299. Leopards are now found increasingly outside forest areas, in farming areas and around villages, surviving precariously only because of their size and adaptability.
Leopards grow to one third the size of tigers; a full grown adult male may weigh 60 to 80 kgs, compared to a tiger’s weight of around 240 kg. They are also natural climbers and their colouring with the spots or rosettes provides them good camouflage across many types of landscapes. WII’s survey in 2015 estimated 12,000 to 14,000 of these cats across our country. With the highest number of leopards being killed in the states of Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, it is obvious that states (not the Centre) need to come up with a solution to this problem. However, to date, the Manikdoh Leopard Rescue Centre is the only one of its kind in India, combining rescue, treatment and rehabilitation, besides long-term captivity for some categories of leopards. It is located in Junnar taluka, Pune.
A comfortable connection
“The leopard population underwent a considerable change in Maharashtra from the 1990s,” says V.A. Dhokte, deputy conservator of forests, Junnar division. “Availability of irrigation caused a change in the crop patterns. More and more areas came under sugarcane plantation. Land-use around forests, in the buffer zones, changed as people began to build houses and live closer to their fields, and the inevitable process of development claimed more area. Leopards responded by taking to sugarcane fields as an extension of their habitat. This led to many cases of acute conflict by the beginning of 2000.”
Sugarcane, which is densely grown in fields and reaches a height tall enough to shield animals from view, also has the added advantage, for leopards, of not being disturbed for a period of 18 months or so. Female leopards have found the fields a nurturing landscape wherein to birth and rear their cubs relatively undisturbed. What also helped was the nearby availability of prey: the village dogs, chickens, goats, and the pigs that roamed around piles of refuse near human habitation. It was the harvest season of December to March that saw the maximum instances of conflict.
Evolution of the solution
When two or three years of acute human-leopard conflict had taken their toll on the local populations of several districts of Maharashtra, the forest department considered ways to tackle the problem. “Any solution has to be thought out both in terms of the behaviour of the animal and the fears of the local population that need to be addressed. It is a sensitive matter, where we need to balance both concerns in as smart a manner as possible,” says Arvind Kumar Jha, who recently retired as the principal chief conservator of forests and director-general of the Maharashtra government’s Social Forestry Directorate.
Initially, to provide some relief from the increased instances of human-leopard conflicts, the administration tried the strategy of trapping and translocating these big cats to other areas where they could roam in search of prey. However, Vidya Athreya, an ecologist who has been studying the animals in Maharashtra for several years, drew attention to the increased instances of conflict between 2001 to 2003 involving leopards who had been released far away from their familiar territory, as well as leopards who walked great distances to return to their place of origin. Her work highlighted the limitations of the strategy of translocation.
Junnar taluka, an agricultural region fed by five dams in the area and thickly planted with sugarcane, became the hub of the human-leopard conflict. This was also the reason it came to finally house the centre at Manikdoh. What was first a plant nursery of the forest department became a place to bring captured leopards to when cages were first constructed here in 2001-2002. Initially only rooms of 10 × 10 sq. ft., these have subsequently been designed in a much more scientific fashion with a day area for sleeping for each individual leopard, and a night area containing green plants, scratching posts and raised platforms for perching. Every individual leopard in the Manikdoh centre has access to at least 250 sq. m of space, as prescribed by the Central Zoo Authority, and all attempts have been made for compliance since 2009.
The centre presently houses four types of cats. One: leopards who have become too old and are unable to hunt. Two: leopards who have been handicapped by grievous injuries in mob attacks. Three: leopards who have been hand-reared or have spent long terms in captivity, such as cubs rescued before 2009. Fourth: those leopards who have been captured after serious attacks on human habitations and are considered too dangerous for release. When leopards are captured from distress situations like having fallen into a well, they are treated for any injuries and released into the same area where they were caught after a few days.
The most remarkable and uplifting aspect of the centre is its record of having reunited 35 cubs with their mothers in the period 2009-2015 after they were discovered in sugarcane fields in the harvest season.
“Female leopards return to the site where they have left their cubs, like all members of the cat family,” says Dr. Ajay Deshmukh, senior veterinary officer of Wildlife SOS and the person in charge of operations at the centre. “We used this behaviour to keep the cubs protected during the day and return them to the site in the evening for the mother to return and discover them. Once she comes and finds them, she carries them away to a place of safety on her own.” To ensure that the cubs are easily accepted by the mother, great care is taken in handling them during the day: one handler per cub touches them with rubber gloved hands, and before release, they are rubbed with crushed leaves and vegetation to remove any other human scent.
They are taken in the evening to the site where they were found and kept covered with a plastic tomato crate with a rock on top. The team from the centre then parks nearby and awaits the arrival of their mother. “We have documented all our reunion efforts,” says Dr. Deshmukh. “While some mothers arrive and pick up the cubs within an hour or forty five minutes, we have had cases where they took days. One nervous mother would arrive every night, feed the cubs, and go away without taking them. We had to bring them back to the centre and repeat the process for a full week before she finally carried them away.” Dr. Deshmukh’s team have also successfully returned four cubs to their mother, who had been burnt when the little ones had remained undetected by a farmer who had set fire to his field after harvesting.
They received treatment and were returned to their mother following the tried and tested process.
Work within the community
But even these heartening mother-cub reunions would not be possible without the cooperation of villagers around the cubs’ birth sites, and this is where the Manikdoh centre’s efforts to create awareness and sensitivity among local populations are worth noting. “It helps to involve NGOs in conservation,” says Jha. “They often bring a valuable knowledge base, and enable us to reach the community in ways that are not always possible for foresters. Till 2006, villagers used to treat the leopard problem as a purely forest department problem. ‘Take away your leopard,’ they would tell us, because they identified us with an administration that was more concerned with leopards than their problems. After our NGO partners came on board, they have helped us enlist local volunteers and have a vigorous outreach programme.”
The NGO that the Maharashtra government’s forest department has partnered with at Manikdoh is Wildlife SOS, a group with headquarters in Delhi and 10 centres working for conservation around the country – including one at Agra for bears and one at Mathura for elephants. “We use the traditional methods of posters, pamphlets, ticker messages on local television channels for conveying information on what to do in the case of leopard sightings and attacks,” says Dr. Deshmukh. “But more important than all these is our being able to create a volunteer task force of seventy five people till date, drawn from different villages in the leopard affected ranges. We have provided training of up to six different levels to these volunteers – beginning with basic information on leopards and their behaviour, and going on to rescue methods and crowd management.”
This well-thought out and planned strategy to prevent the horrific cases of conflicts reported from elsewhere in the country on TV channels has borne fruit.
“People have become more conscious of their own role in preventing attacks by keeping their village environment clean so that pigs do not roam their streets, keeping their goats and sheep in secure enclosures, not venturing alone in dark areas, carrying torches and sticks for their safety, not sleeping alone out in the open and such measures,” says Dr. Deshmukh. The involvement of the NGO has also meant that volunteers are provided with a uniform, torches and whistles, giving them an identity that village people respect and listen to during an emergency. “The development of this task force in Junnar means that now we are equipped to handle any leopard-related emergency in Maharashtra from within a couple of hours to half a day,” says Dhokte.
“The call can come at any time of the night,” says Laxman Shelar, one of the forest department workers who usually sets out with the rescue team. “We have to leave and reach the site as fast as possible, for both the people and the leopard.” The leopards at Manikdoh, each individually named, bear witness to the efforts of the team. Ganesh is a leopard who was clubbed by a mob but received treatment to save one of his eyes; the other had to be removed after it got infected. He lies peacefully in his cage to live out the rest of his years. Sardar, a magnificent specimen around five to six years old, snarls impressively at us. He was captured after two children had been carried away and a lady had been attacked with fatal consequences in Ahmednagar district in September 2015. Sita is small, one of the hand-reared leopards, and shy, quiet in her enclosure. The caretakers at the centre are used to other night-time visitors, too: local leopards who come to sniff at their kin on their nocturnal rounds.
When this writer Dr. Deshmukh on Manikdoh being far ahead of the forest department strategies visible in other affected states, he gave a characteristic modest and balanced reply. “We do not want to claim being ahead of anyone, but what we have done seems appropriate for Maharashtra. Other states will have to evolve their strategies based on the terrain and the nature of the conflicts, and most importantly, the local attitudes and practices of the people. Solutions can only work when they take this into account.” While that is true, Manikdoh has definitely shown the way for positive action.
Scharada Dubey is the author of Monkeys in My Backyard (2012).