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Living with leopards: don't remove them unless they attack humans, says Jairam Ramesh

“Leopards have an amazing homing instinct, so translocation is counterproductive” Maharashtra has been more successful in managing its leopard problem  

For those living on the IIT Bombay campus, life could include an unusual thrill – leopard spotting. The 30 to 40 spotted cats that visit the campus, mostly from the nearby Sanjay Gandhi National Park, are examples of a recent trend of increasing leopard encounters in urban and semi-urban areas.

Guidelines

In a new set of guidelines issued on Monday, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests advises against the capture and translocation of leopards unless they attack people. Instead, smaller precautions can ensure that urban residents can live in safety with leopards, according to Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh.

“The decision to capture an animal should be the last option,” say the guidelines. “If the captured leopard is to be released, it should be in the immediate vicinity of capture, that is, within the animal's home range.”

This kind of advice, contrary to what most State governments are practicing, can sound absurd to those who live near leopards, whether in the IIT Bombay or in the many towns and villages that have seen the wild cats roaming near their homes.

As leopard encounters become more of an urban phenomenon, they have been covered more extensively by the media in the last few years. Why would these people want a captured leopard to be released near their own homes once again?

The answer lies with the natural behaviour of these cats. “Leopards have an amazing homing instinct,” said Mr. Ramesh.

“A cat that has been captured and translocated to another region will often return to its home territory and that causes further encounters and conflicts. It's a counterproductive move,” he said.

Besides, the space vacated by a captured animal is likely to be soon occupied by another.

The proof of the efficacy of these guidelines lies in the statistics.

While Uttarakhand has seen 560 attacks, including 203 deaths in the last decade, and there have been 133 attacks in Himachal Pradesh over the last three years, Maharashtra, which has seen 240 attacks in the last decade, has been more successful in managing its leopard problem.

While 66 deaths occurred in the first half of the last decade, only six deaths were seen in the second half, from 2005 to 2009. The drastic reduction in fatalities is being attributed to these guidelines.

A formidable challenge

With many of the 10,000 or so leopards in the country living outside protected forest areas, forest departments face a formidable challenge. They must partner with the police and the civil administration to manage crowd, a vital part of handling leopard encounters successfully, according to the guidelines.

If crowds can be kept from gathering around a cornered animal, or trying to retaliate against an animal that has attacked their livestock, the problem can be handled better.

Immediate ex-gratia payments, possibly using compensatory afforestation funds (called CAMPA), to attack victims, and better awareness can also curb human resentment of the cats in their midst.

Of course, any leopard that attacks a human being will be tranquilised, captured, and either killed or kept in a zoo facility. However, most leopard encounters are less dangerous, with most of the cats avoiding people if they are not provoked, and the guidelines suggest how humans can live with them.

Better sanitation measures, including proper garbage disposal, will keep feral dog and pig populations under check, so that the carnivores are not attracted to them. Robust, leopard-proof livestock sheds can be subsidised by the State governments. Toilet facilities in rural areas would reduce leopard encounters, since humans will not be answering the call of nature in open areas.

Such adaptation measures could prove more efficient in the long term than capture and translocation of the cats.

“In India, the tiger faces a crisis of extinction, and the elephant faces a crisis of attrition. But with the leopard, it's a crisis of adaptation, and we must deal with it that way,” Mr. Ramesh said.