Ganesh, 12, has cataract in his right eye. The vets at the Junnar rescue centre are training him to rely on his other senses.(Wildlife SOS)
Ganesh, 12, has cataract in his right eye. The vets at the Junnar rescue centre are training him to rely on his other senses.(Wildlife SOS)

Geriatric care for leopards at rescue centre in Pune

At the Manikdoh Leopard Rescue Centre (MLRC) in Junnar, Pune district, 20 of the 33 leopards — mostly rescued after serious injuries related to conflicts — are elderly. And the specialised geriatric care offered at the centre for senior leopards has helped prevent infection, maintain core strength and improve immunity
By Badri Chatterjee, Mumbai
UPDATED ON AUG 24, 2020 04:20 PM IST

Twelve-year-old male leopard Ganesh is suffering from complete loss of sight owing to cataract in his right eye. He suffered an injury when he was trapped in a conflict situation. A team of veterinarians created olfactory enrichments that encourage him to rely more on other senses instead of sight. Ganesh now uses his sense of smell and instincts to navigate within his enclosure and is an active leopard.

Leopards enter the latter phase of their lives from the age of 12, when they start encountering more dental problems, issues relating to joints and a marked change in their overall behaviour and personality.

At the Manikdoh Leopard Rescue Centre (MLRC) in Junnar, Pune district, 20 of the 33 leopards — mostly rescued after serious injuries related to conflicts — are elderly. The four-hectare rescue centre is jointly run by the Maharashtra forest department and animal rescue group Wildlife SOS. It is home to the most number of rescued and orphaned leopards in the state.

The specialised geriatric care offered at the centre for senior leopards has helped prevent infection, maintain core strength and improve immunity.

Another male leopard, 20-year-old Samrat, is not as active as he once was — sharpening his claws against tree barks, climbing trees and enthusiastically rolling in the mud. Now, he lives a slow-paced life. Under the geriatric care routine, MLRC staff substituted most of the structural enrichments (objects in a captive enclosure to develop a suitable habitat) with food enrichments.

“This motivates the leopards to remain active and fit,” said Dr Nikhil Bangar, wildlife veterinary officer, Wildlife SOS. Specialised immunoboosters, multivitamins and calcium supplements are provided to help control the onset of joint problems that may cause severe discomfort, allowing more strength to the bones of the wild cats, said Dr Bangar, adding, “Multivitamin syrups help prevent ectoparasitic infection (infestations on the skin) that may put their lives at risk.”

While leopards in captivity live longer, forest officers said, some animals generally go through a lot of emotional distress (in captivity) resulting in them being overweight, inactive, facing health problems and even leading to self-mutilation.

“Our intention is to ensure that their lives are not like a jail sentence. Some of these leopards have been hand-reared in captivity since the time they were orphaned as cubs, while others drawn in from conflict are not safe to be released again. The focus has been to improve existing facilities, provide more space, protect and increase their lifespan,” said JR Gowda, deputy conservator of forest, Junnar.

Following the Covid-19 pandemic, a veterinary officer and his assistant carry out daily temperature checks twice for each animal.

“Fortunately, no untoward incidents have been reported,” said Gowda.

Leopards, , especially males, are mostly solitary. They are not generally seen getting along with other males.

“This is not the case in Junnar where we have Ganesh and Vitthal (another male leopard who lost his right-hind paw in a snare trap) who are often seen playing together for hours. We observe their movements and ensure there is no discomfort while working on enrichments suited to their comfort,” said Dr Bangar.

Animal enrichment involves providing mental and physical stimulation to captive animals through a variety of methods (food-based, olfactory, structural, social etc.) enabling them to exhibit their natural behaviour.

“Enrichments are important as they give leopards the opportunity to tap into their instincts the way they would in the wild, and encourage them to use their motor and cognitive skills,” said Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder, Wildlife SOS.

Wildlife biologist Vidya Athreya said MLRC has come a long way to ensure holistic welfare of leopards. “From trapping leopards and keeping them in small cages to ensuring better infrastructure and implementing innovative behavioural enrichment models, Junnar stands as a case study for any captive animal unit in India. It also highlights the competence when a forest department and an animal welfare group collaborate,” she said.

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