Moving Leopards Away Signals That They’re a Problem, But They’re Not – We Are

The forest department has been exhibiting none of the foresight or vision necessary to prevent the loss of lives – among both leopards and humans.

The Yamuna leopard. Credit: Raheja Productions

The Yamuna leopard. Credit: Raheja Productions

“… the best-hated and the most feared animal in all India, whose only crime – not against the laws of nature, but against the laws of man – was that he had shed human blood, with no object of terrorizing man, but only in order that he might live…”
Jim Corbett

Wildlife lovers celebrated the presence of Delhi’s first properly documented leopard in recent times. And instantly, there was a contradiction. The headlines on November 25 were heart-wrenching. A leopard had been brutally beaten to death by the residents of Mandawar village in Gurugram’s Sohna area. While officials from the forest department claimed to be present on the spot, they said the villagers didn’t allow them to do their job, that the villagers took it upon themselves to attack the leopard with stones, sticks, spades and an arbitrary assortment of other implements.

It’s true that the leopard had attacked eight people of Mandawar but that does not justify what happened to the animal in return. It was likelier for the leopard to have panicked with a large crowd of humans milling around it, and so reacted to save itself, not harm anyone. With such wisdom, should the forest department not have tried to tranquilise it, especially when the officials there were equipped with tranquilisers, a net and a cage?

This is not the first time a leopard has emerged from its habitat nor the first time that it was subsequently beaten to death. Such losses of lives are symptoms of a system that is evidently unable to prevent the repetition of such grim circumstances, and which has been exhibiting none of the foresight or vision necessary to prevent the loss of lives. Without its reformation, humans and large carnivores (like leopards and tigers) will not be able to coexist – as they should be able to.

Dwindling forest-cover and wildlife habitats around urban settlements are forcing leopards to move into cities. Though the animals try to stay clear of humans, conflict becomes inevitable when a leopard enters far into human territory in search of food or when humans encroach upon forests and reduce the space available as shelter for leopards. A 2013 study estimated that there were almost five leopards and five hyenas for every 100 sq. km in Ahmednagar district, Maharashtra – this doesn’t augur well because it’s more crowded than the norm, an indication that humans are confining them to smaller spaces.

Though such conflicts aren’t new, we’ve generally been turning a blind eye to their repercussions. According to a study conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the National Centre for Biological Sciences in 2015, the number of leopards in India has fallen by at least 70% in the last century. Perhaps it is time for a Project Leopard?

Delhi has the Asola Bhati sanctuary in the Aravali hills and Rajasthan, the Sariska Tiger Reserve. The intervening Aravali areas in the state of Haryana have no sanctuary or national park. Those parts of the Aravali adjoining Delhi, especially along the Gurugram-Faridabad highway, connect the Asola Bhati sanctuary with the rest of the patchy jungle belt of Haryana and Rajasthan. This ‘bridge’ can serve as an important wildlife corridor – if conserved. The Aravali is a traditional leopard habitat, with enough wild prey in the scrub forest as well as many ravines, perfect for leopards. 

However, in November 2014, a fully grown leopard was attempting to pass across the Delhi-Jaipur highway. In the course of a few minutes, an unidentified vehicle ran over the animal and killed it. A month later, an adult male leopard was paying surprise visits to the villagers of Abupur, Ghaziabad. He was seen wandering around the sugarcane fields by terrified villagers, look on from a distance. After a few days, the leopard’s dead body was discovered in the sugarcane fields near a railway track in the area. And only the day before, another leopard carcass had been found near Pachehra village in Loni, Ghaziabad.

The forest department ruled out foul play in all cases, instead claiming the leopards had died after coming in contact with high-voltage wires. But this is hardly the problem: the forest department had failed to ensure a safe and rich prey-base within the corridors. These fragmented spaces need to be linked so that a larger habitat is available for them, and so they aren’t forced to move outside them.

In another example: soon after news of the lynching of the Gurugram leopard came in, authorities at the national capital were keen to capture and relocate the Yamuna leopard that, despite being just a few hundred meters from human settlements, respected its – rather, our? – boundaries.

Cages were quickly installed with live baits in the area the leopard had first been spotted in. On December 10, it was caught and taken to Delhi Zoo, from where it was transported to the Dhaulkhand range of Rajaji Tiger Reserve, Uttarakhand, on the evening of December 11. But all this moving around, of course, will not help because the problems are short-term thinking and reckless urbanisation – neither confined to Delhi alone. Further, relocating big cats has its own share of issues. Leopards and tigers are territorial animals; introducing them into a new environment stresses them and leads to territorial conflicts with others of their kind, increasing the likelihood of its getting killed. In some cases, translocated animals also try to return to their original territories.

Navin M. Raheja is a former member of the Project Tiger Steering Committee.