The life span of an Indian leopard in the wild is supposed to be 12-17 years. However, the animal’s life span is increasingly being cut short.
Humans, in the guise of a faceless mob, are punishing each and every leopard for venturing into human territory, writes Atul GuptaWith more and more villages in the leopard habitat shunning the peaceful co-existence of man and beast, the terrains of India are not safe anymore - for the Indian leopard.In the last 100 days of the year 2012, 100 leopards have been reported dead across the country. With one leopard dying every day, the deaths are largely due to poaching and rising cases of human-leopard conflict.
The saddest aspect is that while poachers plan the kill for the animal’s skin and body parts, the general public is attacking the animal only because it got too close to human settlements.Cost of adaptabilityLeopards have a remarkable ability to adapt. With a build that is smaller than the more majestic tigers and lions, these wild cats have to depend largely on their cunning and adaptability to be able to live in the same jungle as these stronger members of the predator family.
Their agile bodies are made to climb trees, hide behind the foliage and live on small prey that they devour in the safety of their elevated tree houses.But India’s forest cover has reduced drastically in the last few decades. With the rise in human population, man has been cleverly inching closer to the forests with the precious animal habitat being sacrificed for urban needs.
Tea gardens have fragmented both the Western Ghats and the North-eastern terrains on the foothills of the Himalayas.Agriculture tracts have come up in every direction, sometimes eradicating crucial animal corridors and leaving them with no choice but to pass through farms and tea estates while moving from one part of the forest cover to another.Even amidst these changing scenarios, the leopard has managed to survive thanks to its ability to remain unseen.
Leopards detest human encounters just as much as humans fear the sight of these animals. Therefore, even when the leopards roam the human-dominated agricultural landscapes, they do so in hiding or under the cover of darkness. Crouching behind bushes, hiding in dark wells, pits or pipes, the animal’s main intention is to catch small prey like a stray dog or a pig. Unattended livestock also make an easy target as they can be killed with the least resistance.
The rising human population leads to an increase in the livestock numbers; therefore when the leopard can’t find prey in the jungles, its natural instinct brings the animal to human grounds. “They have created water canals and sugarcane fields in places like Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra; the cropping land-use pattern is changing from traditional to fertiliser farming, because of which the leopards are colonising the areas close to human settlements,” says Anish Andheria who helped with the leopard census last year.The problem arises when these leopards are spotted. As per the Ministry of Environment and Forests, even in high human density areas, the mere sighting of a leopard does not necessarily mean that the leopard is a threat and needs to be captured. But the fear of a wild animal roaming freely in the neighbourhood is enough to trigger the rage and counter action from the public.Anger managementLast year, India lost 356 leopards with 41 deaths due to conflict with humans. This is despite the animal being listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972. Only last February, a leopard that had strayed into the small hamlet of Angamoozhy in the Ranni forest division was killed by an unruly mob.
They suffocated the animal to death when almost 100 of the villagers swooped down on the leopard, thrusting their weight on it and plugging its mouth and nostrils. The leopard’s crime was that it had killed two dogs in the village.
Concerned over the rising cases of human-leopard conflict throughout India, the Environment Ministry published a handy manual in 2011 as a guideline for management of such public outbursts. It clearly states that an attack on humans is not a planned move, but a mere act of self defence on the part of the leopard.
The best possible measure, therefore, is to avoid provoking it. The guidelines also suggest some basic precautions like better sanitation measures including proper garbage disposal so that feral pig and dog populations are kept under check and do not attract wild animals. Farmers need to make strong and leopard proof livestock sheds.
In case a leopard is spotted, the role of the police in keeping the crowd under control and the medical experts in treating casualties are as important as the forest department that captures the animal. Last week, the Assam forest department unveiled a dedicated helpline where people could report leopard sightings in residential areas. Such simple meas