Sunday, April 08, 2007

Fate of India's leopards is in the hands of the people

We destroy the leopard's habitat at our own peril, warns Belinda Wright

The leopard has now become the villain of the piece through no fault of its own. A naturally shy and reclusive animal, it stays away from the bustle and noise of human habitation. But when its habitat is destroyed, and there is little natural prey or water available, the stealthy leopard does the only thing it can to survive: it takes up residence near a village.

Unlike the fiercely private tiger, the leopard can live a ghostly existence near humans, hiding in drainpipes and bushes. I have seen a leopard "vanish" in nine inches of grass without seemingly moving a blade. At night, the leopard will feed on village dogs and goats, and as it gets bolder, tragically, even children. And we do not always remember that it is man that has created this aberrant behaviour by destroying the leopard's habitat and killing its natural prey species.

The leopard gets it from both sides. He is often the monster man-eater that must be destroyed at all costs, and then there is the demand from ruthless traders for his skin and bones. The combination is lethal. In the far away town of Linxia, in China, in August 2005, I found 36 fresh leopard skins in a single shop that, according to the trader, had "recently arrived from India". Two of the skins had dark bloodstains on the back of their heads, a sign that they had been trapped and speared to death. And it is not just the leopard's skin that is valued. As tiger parts become more and more scarce, it is the leopard that is filling the shopping cart with his skeleton and other body parts so valued in traditional Chinese medicine.

The question we are faced with today is not: Can we save the leopard? What we need to ask ourselves: Do we want to save the leopard? If I were a villager in the hills of Uttarakhand or Himachal Pradesh, I would probably say, "No. Get rid of the monster." But there are others I know, who have suffered terribly at the hands of this big cat, who have told me, "He has his place too." Many say that the number of leopards has increased drastically, but that is highly unlikely. It is the leopard's habitat that has decreased drastically, forcing him to take up residence where he is more noticeable.

Leopards turn man-eaters not by choice but by compulsion, and the solution to the problem requires simple common sense? Firstly, there must be a healthy environment for the leopard, which, by the way, would be good for us too. Predators, prey species and all the living things that make up a rich biodiversity also save our topsoil and give us precious water. Studies have shown that simple adaptations, such as strip crops, building toilets and children walking in groups, drastically cut down leopard attacks.

The poor leopard. His fate lies in the hands of the people of India. I trust and pray that he will be allowed to keep his place in this magical land.

Wright is Executive Director, Wildlife Protection Society of India filename=Ne140407Predator_or.asp

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