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Why Delhi and its only known leopard both deserve a chance

Even before the news that a leopard had settled in the Yamuna Biodiversity Park could sink in, Delhi rushed to decide its fate.

columns Updated: Nov 28, 2016 13:50 IST
Leopard spotted in Yamuna Biodiversity Park in New Delhi on November 22. The most adaptive of cats, they feed on insects, reptiles, birds and small mammals and never attack humans unless threatened or cornered.(HT Photo)

Even before the news that a leopard had settled in the Yamuna Biodiversity Park could sink in, Delhi rushed to decide its fate. The cat has troubled nobody but a trap cage is already in place. Once captured, it will be packed off to some forest in Haryana or Uttarakhand.

To many, the news of a resident leopard in the national capital was nothing short of a miracle. Imagine an apex predator sharing the world’s foulest air with us, lounging next to one of the city’s busiest arterial roads, by a river long reduced to a toxic drain. If the environmental disaster that is Delhi needed a signal of hope, this was probably it.

Since Feroz Shah Tughlaq hunted big cats where Hindu Rao hospital stands today and the years of the Raj when wolves were exterminated from the ridge forest, Delhi has long transformed into an urban jungle. Yet, all wasn’t lost.

Delhi’s leopards had retreated to Tughlaqabad forest where they hung on till recently. Jackals still survive in the ridge. They were so abundant around Delhi cantonment in the late 1940s that once asked to find the missing family dog, my grandfather’s orderly walked back in the night with a jackal on a leash. Talk about mistaken identity!

In fact, sporadic reports still claim presence of leopards and hyenas in the city margins – Sohna, Chhatarpur, Sangam Vihar, Asola, even Saket. One could not tell if these were resident animals or floaters looking to settle down.That is why a young male leopard marking its territory by the Yamuna was a revelation. Thanks to the dedicated work of the team nurturing the biodiversity park, a number of small cats were already thriving there. Then nature threw in the biggest reward guised as a challenge.

Carnivore biologists and wildlife experts tell that leopards have evolved to live close to people without causing any harm other than feeding occasionally on domestic prey. The most adaptive of cats, they have a highly varied diet, feeding on insects, reptiles, birds and small mammals. Following the camera trapping, C R Babu, the founder of the Yamuna Park, sounded confident that there was enough wild prey -- blue bulls and wild boars -- for the leopard.

In any case, leopards, like all wild animals, avoid people as a rule and never attack unless threatened or cornered. Yes, they are potentially dangerous. But so are most machines we use or things we do.

If anything, the presence of a neighbourhood leopard would force a few good practices. No defecation in the open is part of the Swachh Bharat campaign. Not leaving children unattended is a basic family responsibility. Also, these are the conditions when women and children are the most vulnerable to abuse.

By no means, Delhi’s is an easy choice to make. People living close to leopards for generations have learnt to accept coexistence as a way of life. They follow routine precautions, keep their distance and trust the cats to do the same. One cannot expect similar maturity from residents of the Yamuna leopard’s immediate neighbourhood. To many of them, leopards are just killing machines.

But rushing to shift the animal, experts say, is unlikely to fix Delhi’s perceived problem. If a habitat good enough for leopards has been created, they say, big cats will not let it go empty. No matter how many we catch and remove, there will always be a new animal to occupy a vacant slot. Do we have the resources to cope with this never-ending cycle?

Even if we don’t mind the drill, leopards do. Studies world over show that relocated animals try to return to the area from where they were removed. During trapping and captivity, a leopard often gets injured and also loses its fear of people. Such distressed leopards walking long distances, say experts, tend to get aggressive when they face people. This is how parts of Maharashtra, including certain Mumbai neighbourhoods adjacent to Sanjay Gandhi national park, had become hotspots of conflict.

Mumbai has become wiser since and stopped randomly tossing around leopards. There is a lesson in it for us in Delhi as we deny our only known resident leopard and ourselves a shot at a better tomorrow. Maybe it’s not too late yet to put away that trap cage, at least for now.

First Published: Nov 28, 2016 13:50 IST