GUWAHATI, Dec 12 – Four leopards have been captured in the city’s residential areas in the past fortnight. This high incidence of leopards straying into human habitation is a grim testimony to the rapid loss of forest cover in and around the city.Driven by space and food constraints, the straying leopards are getting entrapped in a vicious man-leopard conflict, which has worsened in the past few years. While there have been cases of leopards attacking people, it is the poor leopard that has been mostly at the receiving end. A number of leopards have been killed by mobs, some have met with accidental deaths, and many have been captured by the Forest Department.
Of the 22 leopards currently sheltered in the Assam State Zoo, around 20 were captured in the city.
Conservationists and foresters are unanimous on one point – that Guwahati, once a stronghold of the big spotted cat, is no longer a safe zone for the animal and if the disturbing trend is any indication, the leopard risks total annihilation from the city forests.
“The man-leopard conflict has definitely intensified in recent years. Loss of forest cover is increasingly driving out the animals in search of food and space. As immediate measures to ease the conflict, we are facilitating a rapid response mechanism with trained manpower, logistics, and a toll-free number,” Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), RP Agarwalla said.
While no official up-to-date data is available, according to an earlier estimation, the total forest cover in the city hills was a meagre 13.60 per cent. Given the unabated encroachment, illegal logging and earth-cutting on the hills, the situation is likely to be worse today. Of the 7,023 hectares of hill land, 2,642 hectares fall under reserve forests but a major part of even the reserve forests lies destroyed and degraded due to encroachment and tree-felling.
On the prospects of evicting encroachers, the forest authorities did not sound upbeat. “Any bid aimed at clearing forestland is invariably met with a hostile response by the illegal settlers. We need much more manpower together with reinforcement from the administration and the Government. Still, we are planning such a drive,” a forest official said.
The official’s version, however, does not explain why the forest areas cleared of encroachment were again encroached upon by people.
Encroachment on the city hills intensified in the past few years with various organisations clamouring for settlement in the forested hills. Conservationists believe that the ongoing movement for granting of land patta (settlement rights) and the Government’s conformist stand was subjecting the hills to more pressure. Matters have also been complicated by the stiff – and even armed – public resistance to eviction drives, with political parties and different influential organisations lending their weight behind the encroachers.
Dr Bibhab Talukdar, chief of conservation group Aaranyak, feels that time is fast running out for the beleaguered leopard in Guwahati, as the metropolis was caught in the grip of unplanned expansion that cared little for the sanctity of its sylvan landscape including the reserve forests on the hills.
“The way things are going, the leopard is set for extinction in the city. There has been large-scale destruction of wildlife habitat due to unplanned expansion and widespread encroachment on forestland. The simple fact is that leopards have nowhere to go either for food or for space. Unless the remaining forests are strictly preserved, Guwahati will part with all its wildlife, not just leopards,” Dr Talukdar said.
According to conservationist Moloy Baruah of Early Birds, according protection to the forested hills from further destruction and also reclaiming the encroached forests is the only long-term solution to the man-leopard conflict.
“The Forest Department has failed to check the city’s green cover loss. It has also failed to put in place a rapid response force to rescue wildlife in distress. All the hills in the city barring one have leopard populations, and it is the responsibility of the department and the administration to prevent human interference in these areas,” Baruah said.
Large-scale encroachment apart, the city hills have also witnessed widespread illegal logging and earth-cutting despite there being a ban on both. Conservationists believe that at this rate, the hills will soon become bereft of any forest cover worth the name.