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In a spot of trouble

The objective of celebrating Wildlife Week — October 2 to 8 — every year is not only to educate the young but also to correct flaws in conservation efforts. Examining the plight of the leopard, H.S. SINGH concludes that the key to wildlife management in the 21st Century is in crafting solutions that meet specific requirements of each species.

GAMMA

As in the case of many other species, it's an issue of battling for territory.

THE headlines screaming "Wild elephant's menace" or "Man-eater's terror", have become common as the conflict between man and wildlife has become an issue. The recent incidence in a Mumbai suburb is an example. In India, elephants raiding fields and human habitation or leopards attacking people have been occurring since the beginning of recorded history.

The Gajshastra, the Fifth or Sixth Century B.C. Sanskrit text on elephant natural history, records how elephants invaded the Kingdom of Anga and left behind a vast trail of damage. Jim Corbett and others have already narrated stories of how they hunted man-eaters in remote areas unnoticed by the media. But today, with the spectacular reach of the media, people come to know of such incidences in a flash. A century ago, rural India lived in the leopard's domain but now the animal finds itself in isolated and restricted habitats in man's universal domain. With expanding habitation and shrinking forests, the emergence of the man-eater is becoming unavoidable.

The impact of World War II

Throughout the world, the population of most large animals crashed after Second World War. Some large biomes like the Savannah in Africa still remain the stronghold of wild animals. It is interesting to know that about 7,00,000 leopards still survive in Africa against about 18,000 leopards in Asia. In the beginning of the last century, the abundance of the leopard in Asia was comparable to the numbers of the species in Africa. But everything went wrong after the Second World War. As a result, some sub-species of the leopard in West and East Asia are on the verge of extinction, while a few of them — the subspecies occurring in Sinai, Ciscacia, Syria and Lebanon — are extinct.

The sub-species of leopards in the world are divided into three groups — Sub-Saharan, North Africa and West Asian and Tropical (South and East) Asian populations.

The Sub-Saharan leopard still enjoys an extensive habitat in Africa, with a population of over half-a-million. The population of the North African and West Asian leopard is below 1,000 and restricted to small numbers in parts of West Asia. In Central, South and East Asia, precise figures are not available, but it has been estimated to be between 16,000 and 20,000 leopards. Except India, which has about 80 per cent of total Asian population, no other country in Asia supports a population in thousands. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal have about 300 to 500 leopards; about 300 to 400 leopards in isolated habitats in Bangladesh and Nepal; a very small population in northern Pakistan; about three dozen Amur leopards in the Russian ranges; about 350 to 700 in Java; and small populations in Bhutan and Myanmar. It also occurs in very small numbers in other parts of South East Asian countries.

After a shaky start, the conservation movement started in the 1970s in India which has paid dividends as the population of several large mammals, including the leopard, began to recover.

Unlike the tiger and the lion, the leopard is a different cat to reckon with. Its size, intelligence, agility and stealthy nature provide it an extraordinary advantage for survival even in fragmented habitats. Despite large scale poaching, the versatile cat adapts well to a changing environment, as can be seen in its growing population. In India, the leopard population has increased consistently from about 6,830 in 1993 to 7,270 in 1997, to about 14,000 at present. Uttaranchal, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have more than 1,000 leopards and account for a high population followed by Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, the Southern States, Rajasthan, Orissa and Assam.

When the conflict begins

Due to increasing contact with humans present everywhere in the leopard's domain, the animal becomes more daring. How long can an extremely hungry leopard tolerate human activity in its depleted habitats in Borivilli or Dhanpur or Gadhwal and the Junar forests? Why should it not treat man as prey when it is on the verge of death due to hunger? After one or two unintentional attacks, a leopard loses fear. Once it tastes blood or human flesh, it gradually becomes a man-eater. Jim Corbett said that unlike the tiger, the leopard is, to a certain extent, a scavenger and becomes a man-eater by acquiring a taste for human flesh when there is a depleted strength of herbivores. He believed that the "changeover" from animal to human flesh was most often accidental.

The stories of the man-eaters in Gadhwal and Kumoan are well known and where the leopard menace still persists. During the last decade, 53 people have been killed and 683 injured by the leopards in Dahod district where over 160 leopards are struggling to survive in an area of about 500 sq.km. In the last five years, 65 people have been killed by leopards around the Borivilli National Park near Mumbai. The incidence of the attacks on human beings is on the increase throughout the country, especially in States where the population is relatively high.

In Gujarat

In the 1970s, people realised the impact of destruction and decided to safeguard their future in Gujarat. A ban on hunting and conservation measures contributed to the recovery of large mammals like the blue bull, the blackbuck, the wild boar, the wild ass, the Asiatic lion and the leopard which are now called "offending animals." In the 1980s, the leopard was rarely seen in Gujarat. As in the official report, based on counting by the forest department, the population of the leopard increased consistently from 498 in 1984 to 796 in 1993 and 1,000 in May 2002 — over 100 per cent increase in 18 years at an annual rate of 5.6 per cent. Of about 1,000 per cent leopards in the wild in Gujarat, only one-third (350 individuals in 3,345 sq.km.) were counted in the 10 parks and sanctuaries with a population density of one leopard for every nine to 10 sq. km. of forests. The rest of the animals were reported from other forests.

It is difficult to decide the carrying capacity of an area, however, based on various studies in Africa and India. But it can be roughly stated that about 8 to 10 sq.km. per adult leopard, depending on the habitat condition, may be the appropriate density for managing leopards in India's forests. But in the case of problem areas — Dhampur in Dahod, and Borivilli near Mumbai — the population density is as high as one adult leopard for every three sq. km of forests.

Who is responsible for the present crises? Endless expansion of settlements and cultivation in forests continues even after grabbing forests in the plains. Regularisation of unauthorised cultivation by Governments has sent a message to people that the offenders are honoured against gentle citizens/non-encroachers. The pace of degradation has left little scope for several species to adopt to changing circumstances. It is the leopard along with some other species, which is battling against the onslaught of the human being.

The rise in the population of the leopard and the imbalance in territoriality vis--vis the carrying capacity of the habitat has also caused this versatile animal to adapt itself to the new equations. Culling has not been even considered as a managerial tool in India to restrict the population of this cat, although it may be necessary in some pockets. The capturing of 140 monkeys from the city and releasing them in a highly concentrated leopard area in the forests of the Vadodara circle where the population increased from 170 in 1993 to 350 in 2004 or the releasing of pigs and hares in Borivilli National Park is a small beginning to improving prey availability for the leopard. But the process of habitat improvement is yet to go a long way in resolving increasing conflict between man and leopard.

The challenge

Managing the population of "offending wildlife", especially the leopard in the fragmented and restricted habitats, has become a new challenge to wildlife managers throughout India. It is a fact that once a leopard becomes man-eater, it becomes a dangerous situation till the problem animal is eliminated. Such man-eaters are dangerous to both man and leopard. When a leopard killed children between Talala and Veraval in Junagadh in January/February 2003, 11 innocent leopards were caught from the wild and moved to the Sakkarbaug zoo. When two man-eaters killed 15 people in Dhanput in August/September 2003, 14 leopards were eliminated from the habitat. Similarly, when 14 people were killed in Mumbai during the current year by one or two man-eaters, about a dozen leopards were captured and removed from the area. Similar stories were repeated in other such areas. In the interest of both man and animal there needs to be a focused approach by knowledgable and skilled animal management experts to solving the problem.

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