Uttarakhand forest deptt starts using DNA testing to deal with challenge of identifying ‘man-eater’ leopards
Dehradun: The Uttarakhand forest department has started DNA testing of faecal matter of leopards, caught after people get killed in their attacks, to ascertain whether the big cat is ‘problematic’ or ‘man-eater’.
In the last two months, the department has sent faecal matter of two leopards, caged in Kumaon, for testing to the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). On September 23, in an attempt to avoid man-animal conflict, night curfew was clamped in half a dozen villages in Pithoragarh district after an eight-year-old girl was dragged and killed by a leopard in Bajeti village adjoining the district headquarters. After the incident, a cage was set up and a leopard was caught. The test of its faecal matter revealed that it hadn’t consumed human flesh. Later it was released back into forests.
In the case of a leopard caught in Nainital on October 9 after a two-year child was killed in a leopard attack a day earlier, the forest officials have sent its faecal matter for DNA testing to check whether it had killed the child. On Saturday, another leopard has been caught from the same area.
Uttarakhand chief wildlife warden JS Suhag said that this is for the first time the department has started DNA testing the caged leopards in a major way to ascertain whether they had killed the children. “The testing of stools for human remains, such as hair and bones, helps in establishing whether the leopard has killed a human and eaten flesh or any other body part,” he said, adding that it is also for the first time that nine leopards have been radio-collared in the state.
Challenge of checking man-leopard conflict
Over 400 people have been killed in leopard attacks since the state was formed in 2000. Human deaths in leopard attacks account for nearly half of the total deaths due to wild animals in the state, reveals data of the state forest department. Wildlife experts say there are many factors due to which it has been difficult to check man-leopard conflict in the state, be it the hilly terrain which provides ample space to leopards to hide to human settlements scattered in hills overlapping with the leopard territories.
Difficulties in identifying man-eater leopard
Whenever people get killed in leopard attacks, under the pressure of angry villagers, the forest department gives permission for eliminating the problematic leopard and a hunter is roped in to shoot it down. But it is never clear whether the hunters have shot down the actual problematic leopard or another leopard using the same territory. To ensure that a leopard is a man-eater and the same one is hunted, there are options like DNA analysis of its faecal matter that contains traces of human remains, comparison of pugmarks, using camera traps in the area and physically following the leopard trail for a significant period. But the biggest challenge is time. Between angry villagers and the man-eater leopard roaming near humans, the forest department is often under tremendous pressure to act swiftly.
Experts say it is easier to track a tiger than a leopard, as leopard moves in vast hilly terrains while tigers generally live in grassy forests. A leopard is very secretive animal and moves around generally in dark, like most felines. So, when a leopard is hunted, it is difficult to know the exact leopard. Also, the territory of a leopard, depending on the food availability, can vary from 10-15 sq km to 35-40 sq km. And they also target pigs, small cattle and dogs found near human settlements.
A former senior officer in the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), wishing not to be named, said there are many challenges in identifying a leopard which has attacked or killed a human. “Mostly leopards attack humans accidentally when they come in contact with them. Many times, they attack but they don’t eat their victims. But it is still a good practice to use all available techniques to identify the individual leopard which has killed a human,” he said.
‘DNA testing will help save innocent leopards’
SK Gupta, nodal officer of animal forensics at Wildlife Institute of India (WII), said it is a good thing that the forest department is going for DNA testing of faecal matter of leopards which come into conflict with the humans. “This will also check the killing of innocent leopards under pressure by the locals. Leopards are also territorial and there may be more than one leopard occupying a territory, which may be overlapping with the areas where people live. This is good for the conservation of the leopards,” said Gupta who has been working on the technique of finding human DNA in the faecal matter of carnivores to ascertain whether they have eaten humans.
Hunter Lakhpat Singh’s strategy
Hunter Lakhpat Singh, who has killed 55 man-eater leopards so far, said it is not easy to identify and kill a man-eater leopard, especially when it is moving in the hilly areas. “But there is a pattern in the activities of a man-eater leopard, which helps us to track it down. There is change in its behaviour. It is comparatively not afraid of humans. If it is afraid, it can’t attack humans. Also, mostly man-eater leopards attack between 6 and 8 pm,” Singh said. “When the young children in the villages are out playing, leopards take advantage of fading light. If a leopard is moving after 8 pm, it is generally not a man-eater. Of the 55 man-eater leopards I have shot, most of them happened between 6 and 8 pm. Only in five cases I have shot a man-eater after 8 pm and two during daytime.”
On the strategy of killing a man-eater leopard, he said many of them often return to areas where they hunted earlier. He said when he is out to take down a man-eater leopard, he moves with a team of 2 more persons with a rifle and powerful searchlights. “While hunting the man-eater, we use powerful searchlights in the forest areas and it reflects the leopard’s eyes in the darkness which helps us in spotting it. With the searchlights on, the leopard stops in its tracks for some moments which gives us the window to take aim and shoot it down.”
Leopard population in state
The exact number of leopards in the hill state at present is not clear. But as per the records of the forest department, the last state-wide leopard estimation exercise was conducted in 2008, when the state reported 2,335 leopards. Also, according to The Status of Leopards in India report released in December last year, Uttarakhand reported the maximum number of leopards (839) in tiger habitations among Shivalik hills and Gangetic plains landscape, followed by 316 in Uttar Pradesh and 98 in Bihar. The report had pointed out that “there is an increasing need for corridor connectivity, and improvement of habitat, to reduce interface with humans and thereby reducing the chance of conflict.”
Uttarakhand forest deptt’s fresh instructions for checking and dealing with man-leopard conflict
In July this year, Uttarakhand Forest department released instructions for checking and dealing with the man-leopard conflict in the Himalayan state. The directions issued stated that quick response teams be deployed in such areas by the officials concerned where leopard movement is spotted and leopard attacks are being reported. After the leopard attacks , the officials concerned should try to understand the circumstances under which the leopards are attacking and come up with measures to check that such incidents don’t occur in the area in future. The officers concerned have also been directed to talk to people in the affected areas and guide them how to save themselves from leopard attacks.
In December 2016, the Uttarakhand high court ordered a complete ban on the killing tigers, leopards and panthers that were declared “man-eaters/rogues,” directing the authorities that “the wild animal that pose threat to human life should be captured alive and released in nearby forests or can be kept in zoo temporarily and thereafter be released in its own habitat.” However, the state government moved the Supreme Court and got a stay on the HC order last year.