Living with Leopards
In the villages nestling along the Shivaliks, the old men do not die. They just fade away as they are banished to guard the fields at night from nilgai, wild boars, sambars and porcupines. The young men must be home with their wives so as to sow their wild oats! Bhaag Chand ‘Bhaage’ is 72 years old and his one-acre plot on the jungle fringe is his home, hearth and family for most part of 24 hours. What is truly remarkable about Bhaage is his ‘live and let live’ relationship with the leopards that reside in the jungles encircling his native village of Choti-Badi Nagal, about 15km from Chandigarh.
In the last one year, leopards have gone past Chand’s ‘jhungi’ (thatched machan-cum-resting place) five times.
The Nagal leopards have been indulging in serial lifting of livestock like dogs, goats and cows since 2013 but have never attacked a villager. There is a perennial water hole next to Chand’s jhungi and thickly-forested ravines and nallahs lead down to it. The leopard holes up by day in the impenetrable ravines and tracks down to water and fields frequented by animals at night.
“The ‘bagheera’ (leopard) comes down the ravines, takes a drink and then ambles down the dry rivulet in front of my jhungi after about 2-3am. The bagheera utters a low snarl while passing by my jhungi and then stops at the peepal tree in front of my land to rake, sharpen his/her claws and mark territory. I rattle my empty tins and shout loudly when the leopard is near but the animal has never attacked me. We understand each other well,” Chand said.
Dr Vidya Athreya, a noted human-leopard conflict mitigation expert, says media stories are sodden with leopard attacks and people wanting leopards to be captured and translocated. But tolerance for big cats was evidenced in indigenous folk/tribal cultures, such as the 900-year-old worship of the big cat deity, ‘Waghoba’, in Maharashtra and Central India. “Colonial rule in India negatively influenced attitudes of tolerance. The British could not think of living with big cats, so they either shot them or kept them away from human habitation. But leopards and humans can peacefully share space and if villagers learn to guard livestock better, it will remove all scope for conflict,” Athreya said.
Foxing the big fish
At first sight, he looked like a weed-removal worker at the Sukhna lake. But his movements were deft in the cold waters as he moved backwards and in curious loops. On closer scrutiny, he revealed a blue net that he was dragging in the wake of his movements. He would draw the net out periodically, throw the weeds back into the water and retain the struggling, thrashing fish! I realised he was indulging in the illegal act of catching fish with nets and violating permit rules that forbid snaring fish below 20 cm in length. This is because smaller fish (minnows) and prawns are the food of birds and bigger carnivorous fish.
I alerted the UT fisheries and animal husbandry department joint director, Dr Kanwarjit Singh, who immediately dispatched a team to nab the poacher, later identified as Rambilas from Kaimbwala village. He had taken a 10-day permit, valid from November 17, for recreational angling from the department that allows only use of a fishing rod and hook. But Rambilas was using the permit as a cover for illegal netting. On closer examination of his net, it revealed fresh water prawns known as ‘jhinga’ and minnows.
A cunning and veteran fisherman, Rambilas’ ultimate quarry was the fresh water eel or ‘baam’ that resembles a snake. He was netting jhingas so that he could bait his rod with them and hook the fleshy and exotic-tasting eels that slide into the cavernous, submerged rocks, fortifying the lake’s embankment. Rambilas understood fish well – he knew the net’s looping movements will sieve in jhinga, and that eels just can’t resist a jhinga dangling on a baited hook.
The killing fields
Avian flu has been ruled out in the deaths of three peacocks at village Daun Ramgarh near SAS Nagar on November 15. The post-mortem carried out at the regional disease diagnostic laboratory (RDDL), Jalandhar, on the peacocks discovered lesions suggestive of pesticide poisoning. “We have sent the visceral content of the peacocks to the Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana, for determining the precise source of poisoning. Cases of confirmed avian flu from the region have originated from wetland birds such as domesticated ducks and not land-based birds such as peacocks,” Dr Vinay Mohan, chief, RDDL said.
Peacocks also die from such afflictions as Ranikhet disease, which also hits poultry. Former Punjab chief wildlife warden Gurmit Singh avers that ‘deliberate poisoning’ by farmers of agrarian birds such as peacocks is a significant cause of mortality. “Farmers dislike peacocks as they dig up freshly-sown seeds or snip at young wheat and vegetables. Around wetlands such as Harike, poachers scatter wheat seeds laced with pesticides and kill migratory birds such as bar-headed/greylag geese for food. Farmers also kill geese because these birds feed on their young wheat crop,” Singh said.
Apart from deliberate poisoning, birds such as partridges and raptors have been hit by contamination of water caused by pesticides and by secondary poisoning, which means the ingestion of live or dead prey harbouring residues of pesticides. “Birds also die when they eat sown seeds which are laced with insecticides to protect against ‘seonk’ (termites),” Dr Mohan added.