A couple of days after the leopard was shot in Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, state forest officials and the hunter who shot the animal claimed they had tried to dart the leopard and failed (see ‘Tranquillising was not an option, says shikari’ The Hindu,August 13, 2013). A Divisional Forest Officer said the “hilly terrain and thick bushes make tranquillising next to impossible.”
I talked to wildlife veterinarian Aniruddha Belsare about the challenges of tranquillising wild animals. Dr. Belsare said, “Chemical restraint [restraining an animal with drugs] is a risky procedure.
In a hospital for humans with state-of-art facilities and the best doctors, the perils of anaesthesia are explained prior to any procedure, and the family of the patient signs a consent form.”
In the case of free-ranging wild animals, the hazards of chemical restraint escalate. Vets don’t know the health status of the animal or its physiological status. They don’t have the luxury of running blood tests before the operation to gauge the animal’s vital body functions.
They don’t even know the weight of the animal or if it is pregnant. Based merely on a visual assessment of the creature from a distance, often getting no more than a glimpse of a flank, they estimate the dosage of drugs.
The drugs are shot from a distance of no more than 10 to 20 metres, using a tranquillising gun or blow pipe. The animal can develop capture myopathy, a fatal condition caused by extreme stress, or it can choke on its vomit.
If the animal moves at the critical moment, the dart may hit and damage a vital organ.
Drugs take around 15 minutes to knock a leopard out. In that time, it can get away, or attack the capture team or a bystander. Sometimes, sedatives may not have the slightest effect on severely stressed animals.
Dr. Belsare says, “Since the risks are great, generally, free-ranging animals should not be tranquillised unless it is a dire emergency. Never, never dart a leopard on the loose. It’s dangerous. Always trap the animal or corner it in a room before drugging the animal through the bars of the cage or window. I learnt this by nearly getting killed myself.”
Sometimes, an animal may refuse to get trapped, like one leopard suspected of killing six people in Maharashtra. The Forest Department’s innovative idea of luring her to fall into a dry well worked and they carted her off to a rescue centre.
I asked, “Would tranquillisation be impossible under any conditions, like in hilly terrain?” “You can always find a way to do it. The real problem is: Many vets are skittish about tranquillisation because they fear the risks. Often they trap, move, and handle wild animals without sedating them.
Stress, self-inflicted injuries from struggling, or capture myopathy can kill the animal seven to 10 days later. Chemical restraint is the most critical tool when dealing with wildlife emergencies. A hundred years ago, we extracted teeth without anaesthesia. Would you go to a dentist who refuses to use drugs today? After all, even local anaesthesia has its perils.”
Had the department succeeded in tranquillising the leopard in Mandi, what next? There are zoos and rescue centres all over the country, operating at full capacity. Not only are the animals expensive to maintain, they are no longer part of cat society and ecosystem.
They don’t mate, hunt, patrol their territories, or keep the newly independent young ones on their toes.
They may be alive in captivity, but for the wilderness, they are dead and gone. Releasing these animals elsewhere is also dangerous as they may cause problems in the new area.
While it’s easy to offer management instructions from the safety of our homes, what options does the department have if it can’t take these animals into captivity, cannot release them, and cannot kill them?
That’s why it’s important to prevent conflict from occurring at all.