Leopards in Guj Turn Man-Eaters, Wildlife Dept Blames Habitat Loss
All Gujarat Tourism advertisements played on TV and internet carry a few shots of the Asiatic lion growling in the forests of Gir. Yes, the Gir lions are the last of their species thriving in Gujarat and pulls in huge revenues through tourism. But lions are not the only large cats to call Gujarat home.
And these leopards are crossing paths with humans now. In November this year three persons were killed in Dahod district, including two children. On Tuesday, 4 December, a two-year-old boy was dragged out of his home by a leopard and killed.
With much focus on conservation of lions, the leopards are getting little or no attention from the state administration, even though a leopard was caught inside the Gujarat Secretariat in Gandhinagar on 5 November this year.
The state wildlife department claims that the population of leopards spiked thanks to conservation efforts. However, according to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, (PCCF) Gujarat, with habitat loss there is nothing much that can be done to avoid leopard and human interaction.
Rampant Attacks on Humans
On 20 November, 10-year-old Asmita Pasaya was mauled to death by a leopard in Dumka forest area in Dahod district of Gujarat when she had gone to the forest to collect firewood with some women.
On the very next day, Jyotsna Parmar (11) from Khalta village was killed by the leopard. Similarly, last week on 26 November, a 64-year-old woman was killed by a leopard on the prowl in Vasiya Dungri forest range in Gujarat's Dahod district.
Despite their efforts, the forest personnel could not capture the ‘man eater’ big cat, ten days after it killed two children and an elderly woman in different forest areas in the taluka.
Finally, on 4 December, a leopard attacked and dragged two-year-old Mehul from outside his hut at Sudavad village in Gujarat's Amreli district.
Spike in Leopard Population
The population of leopards in Gujarat has been on the rise along with the rest of the country.
“There are over 16,000 leopards in the country. They are spread across the length and breadth of India except in Central India where there is a lot of Naxalite activity, and in the Northeast. In Gujarat over 20 percent of the population lives outside the forested areas.”HS Singh, Wildlife conservationist and member of the National Board of Wildlife
Singh continued, “Gujarat has several pockets especially in Gir, Amreli, Dahod and other areas where the leopard population is significantly high. There is a concentration of 20-30 leopards per 100 sq kms in these areas.”
Leopards Live on the Fringe of Forests and Villages
Leopards are rarely found in dense forests because the prey base there caters to bigger cats such as tigers and lions, according to Singh.
“Villages that dot the hilly forests form a perfect prey base for the leopards. The leopards eat poultry and goats, and dogs form a major part of their diet. They also feed on discarded carcasses. It will be safe to say that of the total population two-thirds sustain on such dietary habits. They thrive in sugarcane fields, tea gardens where the grass line is high and they cannot be spotted easily”HS Singh, Wildlife conservationist and member of the National Board of Wildlife
However, when a leopard becomes a man-eater it results in the capture of leopards that don’t attack humans.
“Sometime around 2006-07 a leopard had gone on a rampage in a taluka in Surat. As a result, around 24 leopards were captured by the forest department, but none of those caught were man-eaters. Similarly, in Veraval, a leopard had killed 2-3 children some years back and the forest department ended up capturing 11 leopards.”HS Singh, Wildlife conservationist and member of the National Board of Wildlife
The Good and Bad of Conservation
According to PCCF, Gujarat, Akshay Saxena everything possible has been done to ensure that leopards don’t attack humans and vice-a-versa.
He said, “Leopard population is growing across India and its not local to Gujarat. I wouldn’t say that we don’t have a leopard problem, however, these cats are sly and smart and prefer to live near human habitats as they find easy prey there.”
According to Saxena the fact that leopard population has grown significantly reflects the success of conservation measures. However with success comes the negatives in the form of attacks on human habitats where little children and the elderly are targeted by leopards.
“When things go out of hand the first reaction is to hunt the animal, which is quite natural. What would you do if your kin is mauled by the leopard, will you give a thought about its conservation? How many leopards are we to catch and release into the wild because there are close to 1,400 leopards living in Gujarat. Catching leopards and releasing them to the wild is not a solution; we are only addressing a crisis.”Akshay Saxena, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Gujarat
Society Needs to Scrutinise its Own Development
Saxena states that as a society we need to keep a check on our development as well because it is eating away the leopards’ habitat. According to him, unless we add more forest land, leopard and human interaction is unavoidable.
He said “Conservation doesn’t ensure protection from habitat loss. You cannot control population, hunting is illegal, and habitat cannot be increased. These are wild animals that will not remain contained in one place, they will keep moving in search of better pastures.”
Saxena vividly remembers the day when a leopard entered the Gujarat Secretariat, “A team of 200 personnel was called in that day to control the situation. Why? Because a poor leopard strayed into the complex and we got scared. We felt that it had entered our house.”
“And on that very day all our conservation guidelines were questioned. They were afraid that the leopard could kill someone or damage property. However, if villagers living in the vicinity of leopards can pay the price, why can’t urban dwellers? With time this issue needs to be viewed under a new light, else leopard interaction with humans will continue to spike.”Akshay Saxena, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Gujarat