Guwahati, Monday, December 22, 2014
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How to bell the big cat?
Mubina Akhtar

 Assam presents a landscape of lush evergreen forests and grassland that is home to a great diversity of species, including many of the rare cat species ranging from the magnificent tiger to the slinky common leopard – Panthera pardus. Of the magnificent felines – while the tiger enjoys the lion share of all conservation efforts, the leopard remains the most neglected big cat. Like all other species, the survival of the leopard is also under threat due to an expanding human population, and accompanying development and habitat fragmentation. There is no special home of the leopard in India. They are spread widely over the whole country and found to be the most adaptable of all the big cats. They are superbly made to live anywhere, surviving even on rats and frogs and also scavenge.

That their numbers are more than tigers does not necessarily mean that these beautiful creatures are safe. They are poisoned, trapped and even shot while some die in accidents. To make up for the decreasing tiger numbers, hundreds of leopards are poached each year for their skin, bones and claws. Big haul of leopard bones were seized by police and forest officials on a number of occasions. While most of such cases go unreported, almost 8 kg of leopard bones that included four skulls were recovered from two tea garden labourers in Golaghat district some time back.

As the Indian cat species are rare, most are protected under Schedule I and II of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Killing of a leopard is an offence and anyone found guilty could be penalized under provisions of the law that includes a prison term of six years. Generally, mobs are involved in the killing of big cats. As such, there are no case registered against the violators which is a disturbing trend that is having a terrible impact. Although the leopard is covered as a co-predator under the tiger conservation programme, the need of the hour is to concentrate on the animal exclusively.

The leopard is not a ferocious animal and both human and the big cat have coexisted over the centuries. But with the ‘prey biomass’ (food like small animals) of leopards decreasing due to encroachment in the fringe areas of forests, the animal has developed a tendency to prey on cattle and livestock. This has led to reduction in the tolerance levels of people towards the animal leading to killing of leopards. In a recently published research paper, scientists who tracked five leopards fitted with GPS-collars in the States of Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh, gathered new information on the spotted cat’s diet, movement and their interaction with people in landscapes with high density of human settlement. While dogs remain their most preferred prey, the cats were never involved in ‘purposeful attacks’ on people. The paper’s co-author Vidya Athreya, reveals that the animals do not ‘stray’ into human habitations, but are often ‘resident’ individuals that settle within a small range once they have found their niche. Further, most of these leopards ventured as close as 25 metres of individual houses at night, but rarely came near homes during day. These insights hold true to the city of Guwahati. At least, the pictures of leopards captured on CCTV last month match the findings. Footage even shows a spotted cat relaxing in a chair in the front verandah of a house!

Guwahati has seen a spurt in human-leopard conflicts since the 1990s. In the last few years the conflict has taken a turn for the worse with a number of the species killed by mobs. While the popular belief is that leopards ‘stray’ into densely populated areas, it is the humans that ‘strayed’ into the leopard’s home. Large scale encroachment in forestland and in the hills that provided safe refuge for the leopard has forced the big cat to come into to conflict with humans. Once a stronghold of the spotted cat, Guwahati is witnessing a disturbing trend – the leopard is set for extinction in the city owing to its fast denuding green cover. Guwahati is said to be the only city in the world with a huge urban wildlife concentration. However, the destruction of wildlife habitat due to unplanned expansion poses grave threat to Guwahati’s otherwise rich urban wildlife population.

There has been a sharp rise in the number of incidents of human-leopard conflict with each passing year. This year alone, more than 15 leopards were captured by the forest department in different parts of the State, including the those cats that were caged in Guwahati recently. The captured animals are usually shifted to a new location. We like to believe that translocation gives individual animals another chance. What we are doing is putting them deep inside the jungle in the belief that they are resilient and survive all odds. But the reality is quite different. Despite years of translocation, there has been no attempt to follow the released animals to study whether they survived or not. Translocation or the prevalent method of trapping the stray leopards and relocating them to faraway forests is flawed. A study reveals that in most cases when leopards attack without provocation, it is near sites where the trapped cats have been released. Leopards are territorial and when relocated, some will try hard to get back to their earlier domain. With vast wild spaces lacking, a leopard walking through a new inhabited area is a recipe for more disaster. It is important that these cats are not trapped as have been the norm with the forest department. Instead the need of the hour is to build local capacity for addressing the problem and to follow a policy of coexistence by ensuring safety of humans and survival of the species.

The year 2012 witnessed a number of incidents of human-leopard conflict. There were casualties on both sides. A few animals fell prey to mob violence. Following suggestions from different quarters, in March that year, the Assam government decided to constitute rapid response teams in all the 21 territorial forest divisions under its direct control to combat the menace. While anti-depredation units are there in each wildlife division, their functioning has been marred by manpower and logistics constraints. The problem persists. On the other hand, the response system needs to be better equipped to deal with the growing incidence of straying wildlife. There was a suggestion for a toll free number too, so that such incidents could be reported to proper authorities and help could be at hand. Unfortunately, the forest department tries to pass the buck to BSNL and thus the urgency needed to redress the issue has long been ignored.

Although leopards are found near human habitations, it was found that they avoid people. They have strong social bonds and the mother teaches her cub, who she takes care of for a year and a half, to stay away from people. As such successful educational campaigns are primary goals to reduce conflicts immediately and address the issue.

An advisory system to develop public understanding of protection, conservation and legal measures is the need of the hour. Left to themselves, leopards will leave us alone.

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