Rehabilitated leopards have killed at least three persons in State this past year

The rather frequent, if unscientific, practice of releasing hand-reared leopards and tigers into the wild has been sharply criticised by conservationists in a white paper, Dangers of Captive Carnivore Introductions.

The paper by filmmaker and activist Shekar Dattatri, seconded by wildlife biologists and conservationists, describes the spate of attacks on humans by leopards and tigers hand-reared as cubs and released into forests — most notably in Karnataka — and concludes that the practice is “irresponsible” and “dangerous” to both animals and human beings.

Wild cubs are routinely found in agricultural fields and handed over to the Forest Department that generally hand-rears them (often with the help of “well meaning” individuals or groups) until they are fully grown. Not infrequently the animals are released into the wild its “rightful home”.

‘Alien place'

The problem is, “the hand-raised cat has no idea how to survive in this alien place... And unlike wild tigers and leopards, which give humans a wide berth and rarely pose any threat, hand-raised predators are extremely dangerous to humans because they not only have no fear of people, but in fact associate them with food,” observes Mr. Dattatri.

In Karnataka, in just the past year, at least three people have died and three wounded seriously in encounters with rehabilitated leopards, the paper says. A particularly gory incident unfolded in June this year when Vishalakshi Devi and her husband Gajendra Singh, who run a resort near the Bandipur Tiger Reserve undertook to assist the Forest Department to “rehabilitate” three large leopard cubs. One of the leopards attacked aman from the Kuruba community, walking in the forest with four others, killing him, and severely wounding a companion who came to his rescue.

Three weeks later when a forest official released four hand-reared leopards, which had been raised with the help of an amateur “conservation group”, into the Bhadra Tiger Reserve, one of the leopards attacked and killed a 20-year old student who was walking outside the reserve, and mauled his brother and a companion who went to the rescue.

“The desire to return captive-raised big cats to the wild probably stems from a romantic misinterpretation of wildlife conservation,” inspired by stories such as ‘Born Free' that chronicles the dramatic release of hand-raised lioness, Elsa, into the wilds of Africa in the 1960s,” says the white paper.

Offence

Moreover, all Indian big cats are protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and raising or owning them – by anyone other than a Central Zoo Authority (CZA)-authorised zoo – is a serious offence under the Act, it points out.

Any “rescued” cubs must be immediately returned to the spot from which they were found so that they can reunite with their mother. If that is not possible, they must be sent to a zoo for a life of permanent captivity.

In July, B.K. Singh, PCCF (Wildlife), Karnataka, issued a circular to forest officers in the State calling for an end to the practice of releasing captive big cats into the wild. Mr. Singh told The Hindu that close to 20 tiger cubs are brought to the Forest Department every year, of which a fourth are successfully reunited with the mother.

Vidya Athreya, Wildlife Biologist, Centre for Wildlife Studies; K. Ullas Karanth, Senior Scientist, Wildlife Conservation Society, and Praveen Bhargav, Managing Trustee, Wildlife First, have corroborated the document.