Delhi Tries To Catch Its Leopard Even As the Law and Best Practice Forbid

Delhi's environment minister has indicated the leopard will be trapped for its safety – but these decisions have been about pleasing people and that doesn't make things less dangerous.

A leopard photographed at a zoo in Karnataka. Credit: sridharan01/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A leopard photographed at a zoo in Karnataka. Credit: sridharan01/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

New Delhi: On Thursday, a leopard got into Mandawar village in Gurugram. It was spotted by the villagers, who started following it. When cornered, leopards are known to maul. Over a three-hour period, the leopard attacked a few people and the gathered crowd, 1,500-strong, beat it repeatedly. Soon, the animal died. It was then tugged around the place by its tail in a ghostly masquerade. While the forest department claimed the mob actually prevented its staff from tranquilising the leopard, many others in the capital reacted in shock and horror at the event, calling it a lynching of an otherwise elusive animal.

Then again, that was Gurugram, infamous for its relative lawlessness. A day after this incident, a related story is brewing in the megacity it neighbours. The Delhi Development Authority commissioned the creation of a biodiversity park in North Delhi’s Wazirabad area a few years ago. Now, this green belt seems to have fulfilled its trophic function: a leopard, a top predator, has inhabited it. Park staff who have been observing it say it stays within the park and feeds on wild animals. But even as it has not harmed any human, the Delhi government has laid traps to capture the animal, violating set law and guidelines.

While leopards, tigers or any potentially harmful wild animal can in fact be captured, the law is clear that this has to be done only if the animal harms human beings. By passing orders for capturing the animal, the Delhi government has stepped ahead of itself. Park authorities who did not want to be named told The Wire that a group of locals living around the park have been asking for the leopard to be removed. This was the same time the park authorities released pictures and information of a leopard living inside the park. In 2010, a leopard was spotted in the same Yamuna area, then described as a ‘cheetah‘ by locals.

For whose safety?

In the past few years, several leopards have been killed around the National Capital Region. In 2010, two leopards were shot by police in Karnal and Jind, Haryana. In 2014, a leopard was found dead, with several injuries on its body, in a golf course in Manesar, also in Haryana. In other parts of India, like Udaipur, Rajasthan, and Surat, Gujarat, people have taken it upon themselves to club or burn leopards should they venture near people. The only differentiating factor, with the exception of the Manesar leopard, is that in all these cases the leopard had attacked people, sometimes after being provoked. But in the case of the Delhi leopard, the animal has not harmed anybody. Moreover, this wild animal is living inside a wild area. The point, say activists, is that the endangered leopard is being penalised for existing.

“You can only capture a Schedule I animal if it becomes a danger to human life,” says environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta. “That is what the law says. This leopard is simply inside a forest, without harming anyone. It cannot and should not be caught. By this warped logic, every poisonous snake in India should be locked up, as it could pose a potential threat. What is being done is unlawful.”

Delhi’s environment minister Imran Hussain has indicated the leopard will be trapped for the “safety of the animal”. However, decisions to move or trap leopards have been about pleasing people rather than understanding leopard behaviour or ecology. Last year, the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) had asked for a leopard to be trapped because it had shown up on its Dadri premises in Uttar Pradesh. It had not harmed any person. And the leopard remained free (although not for lack of trying). The forest department set up cages but couldn’t catch what they began to call a ‘deceitful leopard’. In 2010, even the reputed Wildlife Institute of India, ironically mandated with wildlife conservation, tried to capture a leopard on its campus even though there had been no conflicts. Only an agitation by the students on campus and widespread indignation against the move quelled the decision.

In many parts of India, leopards exist peacefully with people. Within the forest department, many officers have an unwritten rule: they monitor leopards but do not disclose their presence, keeping both animals and people safe.

Leopards tend to live near people. In modern times, on the other hand, they have vanished from more than 60% of their historic range worldwide. Thus, of all man-animal conflicts, leopards have borne the worst brunt, and the story is no different in India.

Translocation doesn’t help

Leopards tend to be spotted more than tigers but the best way to avoid them is to let them slip away. Studies have shown that translocated leopards often become disoriented and can be dangerous. They have a strong homing tendency that leads them to head back towards the area they were removed from. Guidelines released by the environment ministry in 2011 say, the “mere sighting of a leopard in the vicinity of human habitations does not necessarily mean that the animal has strayed from a forest and needs to be captured. Arbitrary removal of leopards could lead to increased conflict. The space vacated by a captured animal will soon be occupied by another leopard.”

In effect, translocation in itself achieves nothing and likely creates harm.

“This move by the Delhi government not only violates the Wildlife Protection Act, but it is also against the environment ministry guidelines on managing leopards,” says Vidya Athreya, who studies leopards and is with the Wildlife Conservation Society. “It is likely to be detrimental to the animal itself which might not survive near the site of the release. Worse still, it may attack someone near the site of the release because it has been stressed and dumped there, and does not know the place, thereby creating conflict.”

Leopards have made cities famous – or is it the other way around?

Mumbai, known for its teeming human population, also has a healthy population of leopards in and around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. A long term education and garbage management plan has reduced conflict with leopards. A group of citizens known as the Mumbaikars for SGNP has been active in keeping both man and animal safe. A picture of a leopard in Mumbai’s Aarey Milk colony recently won an international award – but it also showed that leopards don’t always cause conflict. Instead of catching the animals, which causes stress and inevitably angers and injures the animal, other options have been repeatedly stressed by experts. This includes proper disposal of garbage (which attracts dogs, potential leopard prey), letting a leopard leave if spotted and keeping paths well-lit. This has worked in Mumbai.

There can be peace

In conflict situations, rather than the management of the animal, it is often a management of people that assumes primacy. In February this year, a leopard entered a school in Bangalore. A forest department team and leopard biologist Sanjay Gubbi were summoned to tranquilise the leopard. But a 5,000-strong crowd, including journalists, not only impeded the challenging operation but also put their lives to risk. In the chaos that lasted about ten hours, Gubbi was attacked by the leopard, something he does not blame the panicked animal for. It was finally caught and released elsewhere.

In situations where a leopard becomes visible, people gather and agitate the animal – rather than letting it leave from the area. This in fact contributes to the frenzied calls for removing, shooting or trapping the animal. The leopard is caught in a vicious bind even as the throng of agitating people grows and the size of the familiar habitat shrinks. Leopards live all over India but marked conflict is confined mostly to Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, where a host of factors are at play. Other than that, leopards and people have mostly existed with each other, with shy leopards emerging only in seclusion.

In Delhi, both the Congress and the subsequent Aam Aadmi Party have had environment conservation and forest regeneration on their agendas. The Yamuna Biodiversity Park was envisaged as a conservation project to restore the river’s native forest and riverine communities. The leopard is part of this. But Delhi, it seems, will only flex its muscle rather than expand its heart. And the fate of the unfortunate leopard unlawfully hangs in the balance.

Neha Sinha is a Delhi-based conservationist.