Sunday, April 08, 2007

Twilight of India's leopard

The big cats are being hunted down in their Uttarakhand habitat in the name of checking the ‘man-eater' menace. Is the leopard headed towards extinction?

Mihir Srivastava
Garhwal Hills

Just after sunset on March 14, nine-year-old Sony, the second of Prakash Lal's five children, stepped out to the ledge right outside the door of her one-room house to answer the call of nature. The next moment, a leopard silently crept up from behind, pounced on her, broke her neck and carried her down the slope of the hill in Gaharh village in Tehri district, where her house is situated.

Sony's younger brother was standing right behind her and froze with fear when he saw her being attacked and carried away. He managed to gather his wits only after the leopard had disappeared with his sister. Her remains were recovered the next day from a hill at the far end of the valley.

Man-eating leopards are stalking the mountains of Uttarakhand in increasing numbers — about two-dozen deaths, of mostly children and women, were reported in the last one year in the Pauri and Tehri districts of Uttarakhand alone. And it is man who is squarely responsible for leopards turning into man-eaters. "Humans have destroyed what it needs. Humans have created this problem," says Belinda Wright, executive director Wildlife Protection Society of India. (See the adjoining column.) "Leopards are inherently very shy animals. It is not by choice but out of compulsion that they attack humans."

There has been large-scale destruction of the leopard's habitat and its prey base (animals that constitute its natural prey), thanks to the fast degradation of wilderness in the once heavily forested Uttarakhand.

A study by the Dehra Dun based Wildlife Institute of India, found that in Uttarakhand the leopard's dependence on cattle and dogs for food is a startling 93 percent. The absence of prey in the forests has pushed leopards to the periphery of towns and villages — sighting a leopard crossing a road, or lying by the drain is no longer unusual.

The fact that human habitation in the Garhwal hills is scattered on barren hills around degraded forests, devoid of any herbivorous animals, works to the man-eater's advantage. Children make ideal prey for man-eating leopards as they find it hard to catch prey weighing over 30 kilograms. Women are also easy targets as they go deep in the jungle to collect firewood and work in farms where the leopard can maneouvre itself easily.

Officially there are 2,000 leopards in Uttarakhand, which is considered a healthy figure, but according to some forest officials in the state, the actual figure could be less then half of this. "No census has been conducted on the leopard. There is little scientific basis for this figure," says a senior forest official who does not want to be identified.

The popular perception among the locals though is that the number of leopards has gone up significantly in the last few years. "They are everywhere. They are like pests," says Rakesh Bartwal, an official hunter who has killed 56 man-eaters. "The number of leopards will have to be reduced by relocating them to different places where the food is comfortable for them."

So far, the Uttarakhand government's response has been simple: shoot the man-eating leopard. The wildlife department of Uttarakhand has a list of authorised hunters, both local and from outside, for the purpose. Invariably, to shoot a genuine man-eating leopard, hunters end up slaughtering four on an average. Some hunters have admitted to this fact.

When a leopard kills a human it is declared a man-eater, though this often happens only after public pressure. A permit to kill it is then issued by the District Forest Officer (DFO). It is valid for a five-square-kilometre area around the spot where the killing occurred. There are many instances when two permits have been issued for the same man-eating leopard in two adjacent districts. Hunter Lakpat Singh Rawat has shot a dozen man-eating leopards in the last five years. He recalls how in November last year, the DFO, Chamoli, issued a permit to hunt down a man-eater responsible for four human kills in his district. The leopard does not recognise district boundaries and the same man-eater was also active in the adjoining Pauri district. "A month later, in December, the DFO, Pauri, issued another permit for the same leopard which had killed two humans in Kankhar and Sulitalli," he says. Rawat killed the man-eater on January 23, but the Pauri permit is still valid. "This will lead to an innocent leopard being killed," he says.

"There is so much of pressure from the people. For every human kill they want a leopard killed. They block the highway. There is a lot of political pressure as well. We have to kill the first leopard sighted in the area just to assuage agitated locals," a DFO conceded.

"Much more movement of the people in much less forest leads to conflict," says Srikant Chandola, Chief Wildlife Warden of

Uttarakhand. "Shooting the wrong leopard in the name of shooting a man-eater is a serious charge." But in the same breath he admits that it is not easy to identify the right animal. "It is very difficult to tell [whether it is the same leopard]. It is not a defined situation."

Chandola says it is vital that the wildlife department has the people's support. "Conservation can only happen with the support of the people, not by antagonising them," he says. Does this mean that leopards should be needlessly killed in the belief that things will be fine one day? Chandola doesn't say so. But there have been 12 reported cases of man-eating leopards being killed in the last one year, and only six of these were officially killed by hunters appointed by the wildlife department. Enraged villagers killed the other six. In all likelihood, the actual numbers are far higher. However man-eaters are still on the prowl regularly picking victims. Which raises the obvious question: Just how many of the leopards killed were actually man-eaters?

Is killing the leopard the only option? Can't they be tranquillised and captured? "Capturing a man-eater alive is a problem," concedes Chandola. "Where will it be taken? A man-eater cannot be left in the open. The local zoos are full of leopards. We will soon initiate a scheme whereby the captured man-eaters will be rehabilitated." He did not indicate any timeframe for this scheme.

Sanjay Bartwal, a college student in Pauri whose pet dog was killed by a leopard a few months ago, is against killing them. "They hunt to survive," he says. He narrates how a suspected man-eater was killed in his town sometime ago. "When they found the leopard's hiding place, two dozen armed men from the forest, police and hunters, all opened fire at the poor animal till it was reduced to a pulp."

SP Goel of the Wildlife Institute of India is an expert on leopards. "No animal is born a man-eater. It depends on the encounter rate [with humans]. Unlike tigers, leopards find ways to survive, if not in forest then in human habitations. That's what is happening here. They have been known to survive on rodents, on the wastes of the butcher shop," he says. "We have no study of their behaviour, habitat and ranging pattern. Unless we have these facts, we can't explain this phenomenon clearly."

"We need a scientifically managed park with an adequate prey base to stop leopards from killing humans," says Wright. A DFO in Uttarakhand says that no such plans are afoot. "There are no indications that it will happen in the near future," he says.

In which case, the end will be sooner rather than later. "Uttarakhand will lose all its leopards in the next five years, before tigers," predicts a conservator of forest.

» Writer's e-mail: Ne140407Twilight_of.asp

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