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Spare a thought for our leopards

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On July 30, 2013, government officials and conservation activists set a leopard skin ablaze as part of a global campaign to enlist people’s support in the cause of saving our beleaguered carnivores and wildlife at large. Barely six weeks later, a leopard was shot dead in Himachal Pradesh ( The Hindu , August 12) on the initiative and at the behest of the very government functionaries who are mandated to preserve our forest cover and all wildlife therein.

Were there better options with the Himachal Pradesh government than killing the animal and were they explored? For instance, the latest tranquillising chemicals cause instant immobilisation of the darted animal. The department concerned in the States is charged possessing this capability and having trained marksmen for its handling. They ought to have had the first shot in preference to the hunter with a lethal bullet, particularly as no one could vouch with reasonable certainty that the targeted animal was, indeed, the man-eater.

The fallacious arguments for not attempting to save and translocate the erring creatures elsewhere as a policy are almost always embedded in the misconceived notion of a leopard-surfeit India.

No matter how numerous leopards may be, man has little to fear from them. Lt. Col. AHE Mosse (1864-1929, the Indian Army), who is considered an authority on the leopard in India, had summed up his lifetime’s experience thus: “Generally speaking, it may be laid down as an axiom that neither tiger nor panther will ever, unprovoked, attack mankind. It is the Jungle Law, by virtue of the respect for and dread of man in which all the jungle creatures are brought up.”

Lt. Col. RG Burton (1868-1963), also of the Indian Army, who was a dedicated wildlife conservationist and is credited with the movement for the creation of the Indian Board for Wildlife in 1954, was of the view that “[l]eopard are timid and retiring, and no doubt conceal themselves on the approach of a human being … I have known of a man who was lying asleep in the open in daylight, wrapped up in a black blanket. It perhaps mistook him for a goat but dropped him as soon as he cried out … I have myself nearly trodden on a panther. I was going down a hill covered with sparse jungle when I smelt the animal and looking down, saw it lying under a bush at my feet. It rose and walked over the slope into denser thicket ...”

Perhaps another compelling reason to be more caring arises from a fanciful hypothesis that on Planet Earth, India alone is God’s chosen leopard country for, who else is privileged with the trinity: the leopard, the snow leopard and the clouded leopard? Regrettably, some seven decades ago, we did annihilate their cousin, the Indian cheetah to extinction. But we have since matured, are more compassionate and are learning from our mistakes. At this time, it would serve us well to remember what Mahatma Gandhi said: “The worth of a civilisation is judged by the manner it treats its animals.”

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