A leopard on a human-killing spree must be removed immediately. In some places, that doesn’t solve the problem permanently. A few months later, another leopard starts hunting again, as the long history of man-eaters in the two neighbouring states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand shows. The only way to break this cycle of man and animal killing each other is to understand what causes it.
At the end of a four-year-study of leopard attacks on humans in Mandi District, Himachal Pradesh, the site of the recent man-eating tragedy, the Wildlife Institute of India thought they had nailed the causes of man-eating: patchy forests, overgrown weeds, and isolated villages.
How are forest officials to act on this diagnosis? Should they mow weeds and move villages? Even if these actions were practical, would that stop leopards from attacking people? Do other areas with similar features face the same problem? The Mandi study didn’t provide answers.
Leopards are among the most adaptable predators. If they lose forests, they live in farmlands; if they lose wild prey, they live on livestock. Leopards are also quick to duck undercover at the first sight of humans. Why would such secretive animals overlook the plentiful livestock and stray dogs and become brazen man-killers?
The prevalent thinking among conservationists and forest department was: wild animals such as leopards belong in forests. If they lived in farmlands, it was just a matter of time before they attacked people.
After years of hardly any man-eating incidents, leopards suddenly started targeting people in the verdant valley of Junnar, Maharashtra, where farmers grew sugarcane, maize, and bananas. In 2001, leopards attacked 50 people and killed 29. The usual speculations were bandied: lack of forest, lack of wild prey animals, disturbance from a dam, and extensive sugarcane fields. But the problem lay elsewhere.
A research project by Kaati Trust uncovered that several months before man-eaters struck, the forest department began a programme of trapping leopards from sugarcane fields and releasing them in the nearest forest. By the time nearly 150 relocations had taken place, attacks on people became frequent. Villagers were nervous wrecks.
Research shows that moving carnivores does not solve the problem of run-ins with humans. For one thing, many animals return to their old haunts within months. Leopards that gave humans a wide berth are traumatised by the capture operation, when hundreds of people yell, poke, pull their tails, and bang the metal bars of the cage. In a desperate attempt to get away, the terrified cats slam against the enclosure, ripping claws, breaking canines, and fracturing skulls.
Released man-eaters attack people in the new area. A leopard suspected of killing seven people in March-April 2013 was trapped on the edge of Tadoba Tiger Reserve and released inside the forest. Within a week, six people in a nearby village were killed.
In Junnar, researchers found that shuffling leopards around the countryside as casually as a deck of cards created man-eaters. Resident leopards were pitted against released ones, and mothers struggled to protect their cubs from strange males. The result? A population of traumatised leopards attacking people.
To live alongside leopards, farmers need help to secure their livestock and know how to avoid leopards. Instead, the well-intentioned department focussed its attention on leopards. After all, wildlife laws say protected animals that are a threat to human life must be relocated.
The situation returned to normal when 62 leopards were taken to permanent captivity. Over time, leopards from the surrounding areas moved in, and today, live in the same farmlands, taking a few heads of livestock but not wilfully attacking people.
Had the Junnar study not been conducted, how would the forest department have resolved the problem? Uprooted sugarcane, planted a forest, and released pigs and deer?
The only way to find a long-term solution is to look beyond conventional wisdom and analyse what causes leopards to attack humans in particular places and not others. Until then, these tragedies will continue.