December 2011: This image is dramatic. That is why it won a Special Mention in the Sanctuary Wildlife Photography 2011 contest. The officials concerned are seen trying to tranquillise a reluctant cat. The image depicts valour, but underscores failure. Failure on the part of local communities that eat relentlessly away at the innards of the Mahananda Sanctuary, thus forcing out hapless leopards. Failure of the Indian people who are apathetic to the loss of the very wilderness that supports them. Failure on the part of policy makers who systematically discount the intrinsic value of wild nature.
It’s not that incidents such as this were not anticipated. For over five decades now virtually every carnivore expert of repute has opined that deforestation and degradation will inevitably aggravate wildlife-human conflict. In some cases the predictions about leopards have been so detailed as to appear to have been written in hindsight, when nothing but foresight was at work. The heart of the ‘leopard problem’ always was, and still is, that they who know don’t decide and they who decide don’t know.
This dramatic leopard story was doomed to end in failure. Though the West Bengal Forest Department officials tried desperately to rescue the cat, they were neither adequately trained, nor equipped. And crude attempts to confine wild animals including elephants, tigers and leopards by erecting electric fences on the boundary of the sanctuary, merely added to the problem because these do not keep humans out.
And this leopard? It died of an overdose of tranquillisers, combined with stress. Officials were injured as we can see, but they survived.
The photographer did his job... the leopards are trying to do theirs. Who is failing us are Indian policy makers. Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India estimates that over 330 leopards lost their lives in India in the past year. And those are only the recorded deaths.
Not the spotless India I’d like to see.
Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXI No. 6, December 2011