Leopard on loose: Encounters with wildlife warning of accelerating crisis
Markets and schools were shut. Stay indoors, said the administration. The army was alerted. Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut, a city of more than 3 million people, is used to curfews, primarily over sectarian clashes. But Monday’s curfew, although it was not so declared, was over something quite extraordinary: A terrified male leopard that had mauled five people.
In the absence of a tranquiliser gun, policemen chased the animal with lathis, as did photographers with cameras and sundry men who thought it was a manly, exciting thing to do.
While Meerut stayed home because of the unfortunate leopard, another curfew-like situation was being enforced 370 km to the southeast in the villages of Bijua in the district of Lakhimpur Kheri.
A tiger that had killed a man and mauled another had taken residence in the area’s sugarcane fields. As I write this, in more remote parts of eastern UP, another tiger has shut down villages across four districts. Nine people are dead, and professional hunters have tried — and failed — to find her.
Curfews involving animals are not new to India. In 1925-26, the great hunter Jim Corbett found villages in the Himalayan foothills of Garhwal in thrall of a leopard that had killed 120 men and women.
Corbett wrote: “No curfew order has ever been more strictly enforced, and more implicitly obeyed, than the curfew imposed by the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag.”
In 1996, while touring the lush valleys of Pauri-Garhwal, I had a ring-side view of a leopard-enforced curfew. Houses were sealed every night, and children were counted before bed, after 10 leopards — declared “maneaters” — had killed 30 humans over 10 months.
Uttarakhand (then Uttar Pradesh) was well educated, so there was no argument about what had killed these people (although many said these were not “our leopards” but animals trucked in surreptitiously from the plains). However, in the arid, low-literacy expanses of eastern UP that year, mass hysteria developed when babies disappeared.
It was the manai, villagers insisted, a man-creature who could leap over buildings, snatch children from the arms of parents and fly silently through the night with a headlamp fixed to its head (I am serious). Frenzied mobs lynched at least 30 people accused of being the manai. It later emerged that wolves forced out their habitat had carried away the missing children.
Growing proximity between human and animal has always been the prime reason for India’s violent, unfortunate encounters with its wildlife. But the post-1990 economic boom brought them closer than ever.
Since 1990, nearly 4 million hectares of forests have been lost. Every month, more than 40 sq km of forests are officially handed over to mines, factories, dams and power plants, according to one conservative calculation by Delhi’s Environment Impact Assessment Resources and Response Centre, an advocacy group.
The most recent scandal is a vigorous effort by politicians and religious leaders in Kerala and Karnataka to prevent any kind of protection to one of the most biologically important places on earth, the Western Ghats.
The irony is that in some recent years, India’s forest area has increased — officially. This is because of plantations and what is called compensatory afforestation, artificial stands that cannot replace the dense, diverse forests where animals and plants are locked in an intricate, interdependent cycle of life.
When that cycle breaks, habitat loss accelerates. So, there will only be more curfews, violence and violent deaths — sometimes of people but mostly of animals. Almost every day, local newspapers and television channels across India report elephants, leopards, tigers and even armadillos pursued by mobs, caught in bloody traps, beaten or poisoned to death, or run over by vehicles and trains.
The pressure on forests and animals will increase, especially at a time of slowing economic growth and waning enthusiasm for wildlife. It is also clear that prosperity is not helping. Driven by increasing mobility and expanding highways, Indians are vacationing like never before. They also work harder than ever, and as they do, they are more removed from the great outdoors, accustomed now to the idea that wildlife exists on the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet or zoos and national parks — to be gawped at or teased.
Animals as objects of entertainment are a disturbing feature of emerging India. In the south, where elephant-human conflicts are depressingly common, elephants that blunder out of their receding forest homes are often teased and harried by excited mobs. Last year, a couple of terrified, juvenile elephants that blundered into the city of Mysore were pursued by townsfolk and in turn pursued them.
In the five years to November 2013, 150 elephants died from human contact, as opposed to 144 from natural causes, according to the data from the Wildlife Protection Society of India, an advocacy group. It also says nearly 4,000 leopards were killed over nine years to 2013, a figure that the Customs authorities multiply by 10 to estimate poaching data.
Meerut’s leopard made national headlines because it emerged in a teeming industrial city, which has long done away with forests. Panthera pardus, the leopard, epitomises India’s unfolding environmental catastrophe. It is nature’s great survivor, adapting to humans like no other predator, hunting everything from chicken to rodents to dogs. It frequents tea gardens, farms, towns, even the claustrophobic suburbs of Mumbai, where it is known to scale the walls of condominiums or take a nap under buses. The rising number of close encounters is a warning of the India’s accelerating environmental crisis.
A popular children’s book that I read to my three-year-old at bedtime has a story about Mumbai’s suburban leopards. An autorickshaw called Toto finds a little, lost leopard and persuades his driver Pattu to restore the cub to its parents. “Pattu, he’s a cub,” says Toto to his wary driver. “Don’t worry, I’ll find a way.” That, it would appear, is increasingly unlikely.
Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)