Our State Assam is among the most fortunate of states to have the privilege of harbouring a large variety of wildlife in rural and suburban landscapes. The prime species in this category is the Indian Leopard (Panthera pardus). We have a large population of this magnificent cat residing and roaming in the tea gardens of Central and Upper Assam. This is a wonderful first glance picture for any wildlife enthusiast or Nature lover. But the next picture of this same situation is a grim, pathetic and even fearful one, for the leopards of our gardens are waging a desperate battle for survival, snatching a morsel of food here and there, trying to escape from human assault in between and traversing long distances during the night in search of food. Yes indeed, circumstances have reduced this carnivore into a fugitive, lurking in the gardens and trying to make a life for itself. With growing proximity to humans, it had, over the years, lost its fear of humans considerably and I have witnessed and also heard about instances when leopards had rendered stretches of tea garden paths untraversable by humans by its ferocious presence.
The pathetic condition of leopards today can be attributed to several reasons, the first of which, no doubt, is the shrinking of forest habitat, but at the same time, the most valid reason why leopards roam our tea gardens is that the tea bushes, intersected by narrow paths and nullahs, provide the best possible habitat for the leopards to live in and breed. Infact, leopards had been living in our gardens since decades. But, the deterioration of the habitat conditions of our reserved forests and over eighty percent depletion of the leopards’ natural prey base in these reserved forests has compelled a very high percentage of our leopards to adapt to the alternative habitat i.e. the tea gardens.
The threats to these garden leopards is mostly due to human intolerance and revengeful outlook towards the presence of leopards in their vicinity. No doubt this is because leopards are taking a toll of the villagers’ livestock and have sometimes attacked them as well. But one aspect must be understood and it is that sufferers from leopard depredation always exaggerate their losses. Sometime back, it had been reported that twelve cows of one farmer had been killed by a leopard within twenty days, but the fact was that the concerned leopard was in that area since only seven days. So the farmer’s statement was false.
During the night time, when leopards break into cattle sheds or, most frequently, a goat pen or duckery and try to snatch one of these livestock, the owners usually shout from inside the house or sometimes venture out and make a hue and cry so that the leopards are most often forced to abandon their kill. When the kill is smaller i.e. a goat or a duck, he manages to escape with it.
It is during those desperate kills the leopard makes during the day that they are most vulnerable to an organised human mass assault. What happens in these cases is that if a leopard – after a fruitless night’s hunt (leopards are usually nocturnal hunters) – tries to make off with a goat or a calf in the tea garden or village area, it is immediately noticed by the villagers or garden labourers and there is a hue and cry and a large gathering of a few dozen to a couple of hundred or, more people accumulate. Now the revengeful villagers vow to wipe out the leopard and try to encircle it and club it to death with all sorts of crude weapons that they can get hold of. And finally, they succeed in doing that, with a few local males taking the lead.
Imagine the situation from the leopard’s point. After an unsuccessful night hunt, weakened by hunger, in the morning he has desperately acquired some food for himself and then a whole mob has snatched him of his very life. There can never be a more mournful and pathetic scene for any species of wildlife currently in Assam.
Another very important threat that our garden leopards are facing is death or injury due to interspecies conflicts. Leopards are highly territorial, specially the males, and they strongly resent their territory being trespassed by others, in which case a conflict is almost inevitable and the weaker or the smaller one is almost certain to get killed unless he makes good his escape with some serious injuries. So, here is another possibility of losing some of our leopards. In fact, this has been reported from several gardens.
There are a few other threats as well to our leopards. Road accidents have claimed the lives of several leopards over the last few years. These accidents occur mostly as leopards try to cross over national highways adjoining tea gardens.
Other grim possibilities should also be taken note of. Since poisoning of elephants has been taking place since some time now, we cannot wholly rule out the possibility of the same happening in the case of leopards, because now it seems that the villagers and garden labourers of the leopard infested areas are a desperate people.
So, finally, the question arises as to how to go about seeking a remedy to this very serious man-leopard conflict situation, so that we can ensure the safety of the leopards and also protect people and their livestock. Two of the parties who are at the forefront in handling this crisis are the Forest department and the tea garden managements. They are trying to do the most they can for the benefit of the leopards and the concerned people. But both these organisations have their limitations. Today, illegal logging and forest encroachment are two of the gravest threats to our forests and the forest department has to utlise most of their resources towards fighting these two problems and, to their credit, they have made some commendable progress in that line. So, we must seek to work closely with them on that aspect.
Secondly, tea management is making utmost efforts to minimize the man – leopard conflicts in their gardens by instructing the labourers and others not to harm the leopards but nevertheless, things sometimes get out of hand. We must realize that the tea management people, since time immemorial, were the best of naturalists who live in the lap of Nature.
Now the time has come for all the parties concerned to arrive at a broader consensus and formulate a mutually beneficial and co-ordinated work programme which provides some remedies for the present as well as the future. Target specific awareness programmes would play a vital role.
A very sympathetic outlook, total assessment of the ground situation and a will to conserve this magnificent big cat without any hegemony by all concerned could only safeguard this magnificent species of wildlife which I call our “Garden Leopards”.
Asif Ahmed Hazarika