July 2015: Ankit got into his bed as usual, hoping to fall asleep quickly. Moments later, he ran screaming into the kitchen and locked himself in. There was a monster under his bed.
Ankit Pal, a resident of Ghansali town in Uttarakhand, was terrified for his life when he realized a leopard that had been hiding under his bed had attacked him. Fortunately, he did not suffer much harm and the leopard was trapped the next day.
For the people of the hilly state, the wild cat is no less than a bloodthirsty monster, appearing out of nowhere, to strike terror in the homes of villagers.
News papers highlight the fact that leopards have killed 16 and injured about two dozen people in the state in the first four months of 2016 – an average of one kill every week.
While this number has set off panic buttons, the problem is hardly new.
As per Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), leopards attacked 550 people in Uttarakhand from 2001 to 2010. Of these, 198 resulted in deaths. On an average, more than one attack was reported every week and roughly two people were killed every month in the last decade.
Another horrifying incident that occurred in February was of a woman feeding her 2-year old child in her lap. A leopard pounced upon the toddler and dragged it away. Twenty minutes later, the toddler’s mauled body was found nearby. This was the second such instance in Haripurkalaan (near Rajaji Tiger Reserve) in two months.
Living With Man-Eaters
The fear of a man-eater lurking in the bushes has become a daily factor in the lives of those living in settlements close to forest areas.
Ajay Joshi, who hails from Pandava Khal village in Almora district, told 101reporters that after sunset, children are not allowed outdoors. Adults don’t venture out alone, and if necessary only in groups. He recounted that leopards have killed about half a dozen children in his village of Pandava Khal in the past year or so.
Those working in the fields have to remain ever-vigilant, as grown crops provide perfect camouflage for the spotted predator. Last month in Rampur, near Roorkee, a woman who was carrying her husband’s lunch to the fields became a leopard’s prey.
Twenty-five schools were shut in Lansdowne in March this year—ahead of the annual exams—after leopards killed two four-year-old girls within a week. In one case, a leopard attacked the girl in her home. Her mother fought off the animal, but the girl succumbed to her injuries.
Instances of people fighting off leopards have become so commonplace that local newspapers carry such stories in the third or fourth page.
One such tale is of two boys in Pithoragarh who nabbed a leopard that had earlier attacked them outside their school. The boys had the leopard pinned to the ground till the forest department team came and took over.
Another tale of bravery is of a 70-year-old man who fought off two leopards last year, in a 10-minute battle that cost him his eye. Then there’s the famous story of a 56-year-old woman from Rudraprayag who killed a leopard with her farm tools in August 2014 in a 30-minute battle.
Why Are Leopards Attacking Humans?
There’s consensus among government and experts about the cause of the problem: A shrinking habitat, in-turn a depleting prey base for the spotted cat.
Government data shows Uttarakhand houses the highest number of developmental projects such as road construction, irrigation and hydel power in the country. The state has diverted 67,342 hectares of forest land, an area equal to Mumbai city, for more than 4000 developmental projects since 1980.
|Sl No||States||No of Projects||Forest Land Diverted (in hectares)|
The Central government in April 2015 admitted in Parliament that the total area occupied by leopards had shown an overall decrease in Uttarakhand.
Another major cause of leopards venturing near humans is the increasing frequency and scale of destruction caused by forest fires every summer.
In the last four years, the state has recorded 996 incidents of fire in the forest, as per government data. Ajay Joshi also told 101reporters that many of the fires that ravage the hills are set by villagers wanting to clear the land of wild bushes. This is done so that lush grass grows in the monsoon, to provide fodder for their cattle but extremely dry weather coupled with strong winds leads to massive fires.
A week after Ajay spoke with 101reporters, the news of forest fires in the state was telecast on national news channels. More than 3,000 hectares of forest land was gutted in April-May.
Hunting The Predator
For every leopard attack, there is public outrage and cries for the man-eater to be killed. The atmosphere of terror and anger has reached such proportions that any leopard that ventures out of the forest is now being hunted.
Dhandhar village near Jim Corbett National Park witnessed the most infamous and horrific vengeance by a mob in March 2011. After the forest department trapped a leopard, a 300-400 strong mob took over, poured petrol on the wild cat and set it ablaze. Alive. They overpowered the forest department team and dispersed only after the wailing animal met its sorry end.
In Choukhutiya village in March this year, a villager killed a leopard he came across with a lathi. The forest department was vouching the leopard was a man-eater, but the autopsy revealed the animal hadn’t had any food for four days.
In March, Lansdowne MLA Dilip Singh Rawat staged a sit-down protest in the legislative assembly with a toy-leopard, demanding a solution to human-leopard conflicts in his constituency. He held a placard that read “Save humans, kill leopards”. He was merely echoing the sentiments of the villagers. Kill any leopard that’s spotted.
Leopards Killed, Problem Survives
According to the WCS, 45 leopards in Uttarakhand were declared man-eaters and killed from 2001 to 2010. Between 2011 and 2015, 50 leopards were killed, say the WPSI figures. But, the problem continues.
“In Uttarakhand, it has become the only action available to the government and it needs to stop because your own data will show that despite so many man-eaters being killed, in the same places leopards are still there and still killing people,” said Vidya Athreya, a biologist associated with WCS who has published several papers on leopard conservation.
Noting that even though checking human-leopard conflict is a difficult task, the measures currently in place fall short to meet even the most basic standards.
Is Killing The Solution?
Experts say this remedy is an oversimplified version of the correct course of action.
“When a leopard is a proven man-eater, it is probably better for the species as a whole that it be removed from the wild as soon as possible. The presence of man-eaters understandably terrorises people, and if the situation isn’t taken care of, the backlash affects the species as a whole. However, we are concerned by the lack of transparency in the issue of permits to hunt man-eaters, the methods that these hunters use, as well as the follow-up to ensure that the correct animal has been targeted,” said Avinash Basker, head, legal programme, WPSI. “It is quite possible that some of the leopards being hunted are not man-eaters.”
National Tiger Conservation Authority guidelines say a big cat is to be labelled a man-eater only after “considerable examination based on field evidences”. However, the shooters Uttarakhand forest department ropes in infamously rely on their “instincts” and “experience” to identify a man-eater. Often, rage of the unrelenting mob compels them to gun down any big cat that is sighted.
For Peaceful Co-existence
Leopards are spread across the country’s forests and many, if not most, of these areas have witnessed cases of leopard attacks now and then.
“The problem requires education of affected populations about the dos and don’ts in conflict situations. It also requires payment of speedy and equitable compensation for loss of property, injury, or loss of life that occurs as a result of it. Of course, it would help if we stopped encroaching into forest areas as well,” said Basker.
According to a Wildlife Institute of India census on tigers and other co-predators, published in 2014, Uttarakhand had 703 leopards (estimated). Madhya Pradesh had the highest number (1,817), followed by Karnataka (1,129). The census said Maharashtra had about 905 spotted wild cats and Chhattisgarh had 846.
Though Uttarakhand is the worst-affected, leopard attacks are reported in Maharashtra and Karnataka too. From March 2013 to April 2014, Karnataka recorded 32 instances of leopards attacking people, including three fatalities (according to a study by WCS and Center for Wildlife Studies). In Maharashtra, Junnar, Pune district, is among the worst-hit.
In her presentation to the Maharashtra government on tackling human-leopard conflict, Vidya Athreya had stressed the need to educate people, politicians and media. She said people living around leopard habitats should observe certain precautions.
Athreya said that it was obvious that Uttarakhand’s policy of killing leopards was proving to be ineffective, and Maharashtra—which has more leopards than the Himalayan state and witnesses attacks of similar nature—has seen a decline in the number of man-animal conflict instances.
“It is possible for attacks to decrease, but management action has to be based in knowledge,” she said. Athreya notes that it’s important to prevent the conflict before it happens.
Hemant Gairola is a Dehradun based journalist with 101Reporters.com.