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The Lament Of Leopards

The Lament Of Leopards

Leopards have successfully adapted to a life lived cheek-by-jowl with human habitations. But the widespread use of jaw traps in rural areas may be forcing some of them, injured or maimed by such traps, to venture into more densely populated areas. This could increase the probability of conflict with humans, besides posing a threat to leopard populations outside protected forests, opines Dr. Mayukh Chatterjee.

A wild female leopard gazes over her shoulder at the photographer. Photo: Mayukh Chatterjee.

A couple of months ago, nearly two years after a leopard had created panic in the heavily populated Sadar Bazaar area of Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, another leopard found its way into the Army Cantonment area of the city.

It was the 12th of April. Wildlife Trust of India’s (WTI) UP Big Cat Conflict Mitigation Project – which has worked to palliate conflict situations pertaining to leopards and tigers in Uttar Pradesh since 2010 – had received an emergency call about the leopard. Our Rapid Response Team immediately made its way to Meerut.

The same part of the same city, once again an army hospital; the same Forest Department and administrative officials. Could it be the same leopard, I wondered as I drove towards Meerut. Most unlikely.

A massive crowd of mediapersons and onlookers was present, as they had been during the previous incident, placing immense pressure on the Forest Department to 'quickly catch the leopard and take it away.' This leopard was injured though, as its blood-stained paw prints across the hospital premises proved beyond doubt. With so many people around, and probably in great pain from its injury, it lay quietly in a thicket of branches on a short banyan tree, barely visible to anyone.

WTI’s Dr Aaron Wesly checks the sedated leopard’s heartbeat after the recent Meerut operation. The leopard was initially placed in a cage and rushed onto a truck for possible wild release.
Photo: Mayukh Chatterjee.

A BIG CAT IN DISTRESS

Initial attempts to tranquilise the leopard saw it escape into the night, even though one of the darts had hit its target. The big cat resurfaced at daybreak about a kilometre from the hospital, injuring four construction workers before bounding off to hide behind a pile of old furniture heaped onto the long veranda of a storehouse within the Indian Army's JCO Mess compound.

A coordinated operation began, with our team, the Forest Department, the Indian Army and the Police Department working in unison. By sundown, almost the entire veranda had been converted into a large enclosure made of three linings of gunny nets reinforced with metal and wooden bracings.

The next morning we found that the enclosure had done its job, containing the leopard and providing the city’s anxious civil administration and people some respite. After carefully clearing away some of the furniture so that the leopard was more visible, an attempt was once again made to tranquilise it. Finally, two darts hit their mark, delivering an adequate amount of sedative.

The leopard, now sound asleep, was placed in a cage and rushed onto a truck that was to carry it straight to its release site. But en route, a closer examination revealed something disturbing that stopped us in our tracks. Two middle toes on the leopard’s right forelimb were completely severed. A rather recent injury, its nature suggested that a jaw trap was the culprit. It solved part of the puzzle, explaining the blood-stained pugmarks and perhaps also why the leopard had forayed into the heart of a heavily populated city like Meerut. But to us it was a major disappointment: at the end of a maddening 55-hour rescue operation we would not be able to give this wild feline its freedom.

Large carnivores with debilitating injuries, especially big cats such as tigers and leopards, are considered ‘infirm’ or ‘unfit’ to survive in natural environments. Whether hunting fleet-footed prey or fighting off rivals, a wild cat with a missing fang or claw is at great disadvantage. As a rule, therefore, rescued big cats with permanent disabilities are placed under lifetime care in zoos. This leopard was re-routed to the Kanpur Zoo, where it would spend the rest of its life.

For me, though, the incident raised a larger question: was prolific maiming from jaw traps pushing these ‘unfit’ leopards towards more competition-free habitats, such as the cantonment area of Meerut?

Nets being placed along the verandah of the storehouse, JCO Mess Compound, during the April 2016 Meerut operation. Photo: Mayukh Chatterjee.

SMALL TRAPS, LARGE IMPACT

The use of jaw traps is quite widespread in Uttar Pradesh. Many farmers in the state use them to trap small game or to kill crop raiding species such as wild pigs. But they invariably lead to the death and maiming of several other species; leopards seem to be topping the list in recent times.

Leopards are well adapted to human habitats, surviving in the relatively competition-free environments on a wide range of species from domestic dogs to bandicoots. It would not be surprising, then, if the survivors of jaw traps are further pushed by 'fit' leopards into denser human habitations with just enough cover to avoid being seen, and enough ‘unaccustomed’ prey.

Even bustling cities such as Meerut have sufficient cover and feral dog populations to harbour such ‘unfit’ vagrants – the Army Cantonment is one such area. These leopards quitely eke out their living, mostly unseen by human eyes, like ghosts. The unfortunate ones are discovered and harried with sticks and stones until they are killed; the slightly more fortunate are tranquilised and safely rescued.

While concentrated research is needed, preliminary data suggests that jaw traps could indeed be responsible. Since 2012, WTI has rescued at least 18 leopards from the northern and eastern regions of Uttar Pradesh. More than half were found either caught in jaw traps, or having sustained injuries reminiscent of those left by jaw traps. One such adult female leopard, rescued from a village bordering Meerut city in 2014, had an older amputation of three toes on its right hind limb, while another trap, still clinging to its paw, had severely mangled its forelimb. A few months earlier an adult male leopard, also found caught in a jaw trap, had been rescued from another village bordering Meerut. Such incidents seem to be on the rise as most jaw trap-based incidents have been recorded after 2011, with a considerable increase post 2012. In fact in 2013, a juvenile female tiger was also found caught in a jaw trap near Kishanpur Wildlife Sanctuary, and rescued successfully by our team.

In 2014, a female leopard which had wandered off into a village bordering Meerut and was rescued, had a forepaw caught in a trap. Photo: Mayukh Chatterjee.

THE WAY FORWARD

Irrespective of which animal these traps are manufactured for or used against, their use is deemed illegal under Section 2(16) of the Wild Life (Protection) Act of 1972. Their widespread use outside Protected Areas (PAs) also creates low risk opportunities for professional poachers and thus constitutes a larger threat to wildlife populations thriving outside PAs, especially leopards.

If the use of these crude traps is not curbed, there could be a high potential for leopards to get poached for their skins from outside protected forests. The prolific use of such devices could also lead to more and more impaired leopards, which are increasingly forced to inhabit areas like the Meerut Cantonment.

But how can one stop or even reduce the use of jaw traps in rural landscapes, when they remain largely undetected? There are only two, necessarily simultaneous approaches to tackle such an issue.

First, a sustained campaign needs to be launched in areas where such traps have been detected in the past, sensitising people as to how leopards in their farmlands could potentially keep other animals, more destructive to crops, at bay. And how, with just a few precautionary measures, humans can live next to leopards in relative harmony. Success stories like Mumbai’s Aarey Milk Colony – perhaps one of the best examples of such an inculcated coexistence – may be few, but they demonstrate the possibility of coexistence through a change of mindsets.

The second effort should aim at choking the manufacture and supply of these traps, as well as their widespread use. For this, people found using such traps need to be penalised as and when cases surface. Informer networks need to be utilised (or created) to track and shut down manufacturers. It is important to target both the sources and end users of these contraptions in order to have a more lasting effect in various identified regions of their use.

If concerted action is not immediately taken, not only will the poaching of leopards begin, if not already ongoing, outside protected forests, but we will begin to see an increasing number of leopards in denser human habitats in the years to come.

Author: Dr. Mayukh Chatterjee, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 6, June 2016.

 
 
 

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