Monday, August 8, 2011

The Human- Leopard relationship in India


Like all human-animal relationships this one too is multifaceted. It has awe, it has fear, it has greed, it has mistrust and it also has a grudging admiration. All big cats inhabit our art and literature, and so does the Leopard. They embellish our language with similes and idioms.
As things stand especially in this century, the relationship is marked more by fear and greed. Because of various factors some of which will be discussed later, more leopards are turning into man-eaters.
A man-eater is an informal term for an animal that adds humans to its diet. Although human beings can be attacked by many kinds of animals, man-eaters are those that have incorporated human flesh into their usual diet. Most reported cases of man-eaters have involved wolves, tigers, leopards, lions, crocodiles, alligators, and sharks.

The Leopard-man relationship has always been a tense one, with frequent conflicts between them. Generally, a leopard is inoffensive and quite a ‘cool’ animal that is fearful of human beings. It vanishes silently into the bushes at the sight or sound of a human. When wounded, some show an astonishing degree of intensity and bravery. Others are most cowardly and allow themselves to be followed up, or even chased like curs. The cutting down of trees and human encroachment of forest land has forced the leopard to frequent villages and sometimes even cities. The cat starts off by killing and eating livestock like cows, oxen, goats etc, then gradually gets bold and eventually attacks humans. Children are the easiest to catch and then women. Attacks follow a similar pattern. A woman is walking home in the dark with her youngsters alongside. The leopard jumps out of a bush and knocks down one of the children to the ground and runs off with him.
The leopard generally hunts at night and time to time humans have been its target. There is a popular saying which goes thus: ‘if the leopard were as big as the lion, it would have been ten times more dangerous.’ A leopard becomes a man-eater generally as the outcome of some extraordinary circumstance. May be, someone has wounded it and it is unable henceforth to hunt its natural prey, other animals, easily. Therefore, through necessity it begins to eat humans, because they offer an easy prey. Or perhaps a leopard has eaten a dead human body which was originally buried in a shallow grave and later dug up by jackals or a bear. Once having tasted human blood and flesh, the leopard takes a liking to it. Lastly, but very rarely indeed, it may have been the cub of a man-eating mother, who cultivated the taste in it.
One of the most famous man-eating leopards was the ‘Man-eater of Panar’, which took away more than 400 people before it was shot by Jim Corbett in 1910. But some years later, between 1918 and 1926, there was another terror striking leopard that hit the world’s newspaper headlines, and even became the concern of the British Parliament. This ‘dark lord’ was the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag. This beast began its
man-eating orgy from a small village just 19 kilometers from Rudraprayag- a small town in the hills of Uttar Pradesh, now Uttrakhand. Throughout the nine-year period that its reign of terror lasted people underwent a self-imposed curfew. No on dared to step out after sunset. But even those locked in their houses were not safe. Jim Corbett, in his book, The Man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag, describes how a 14-year-old orphan boy and his flock of 40 goats were locked away in a small room each night by the flock’s owner, the boy’s master. There were no windows in the room, and the door was locked with a slither of wood jammed through a catch. The boy placed a boulder against his side of the door. One night, the dark lord came. It clawed at the door, dislodging the wood, and then pushed hard against the rock, shoving the door ajar. Once inside, it ignored the goats, and pounced upon the boy as he slept. The goats escaped, all unharmed. In the morning the goat’s owner found the boy’s remains in a deep ravine near the village. Despite living and sleeping immediately above the room, the man had heard nothing.
This ability of the leopard to hunt and kill silently was illustrated by a tragedy from another village. Two men were sitting in a dark room smoking from a hookah. The door to the room was closed but not locked. One of the men dropped the hookah, spilling charcoal and tobacco on the rug on which they were sitting. The other man bent down to clear the mess, and just as he looked up he saw that the door had been flung open. In the doorway, silhouetted against the moonlight, was a leopard. It was carrying away the other man, who was already dead. The survivor had heard nothing, even though they had been sitting barely two feet away from each other. This leopard escaped whatever trap was set for it by the hunters.
One particularly nasty method to kill or catch a man-eating leopard, used in those days, was to insert a small bomb inside the body of an animal killed by the leopard. When the predator returned to the carcass to feed, its teeth would make contact with the bomb and the bomb would explode. Either its jaws would be blown off and it would be killed instantly, or more than often it would crawl away to die a slow and painful death. However, the Rudraprayag leopard managed to avoid such bombs, traps, guns and poison.
It gained such notoriety that questions were asked and aspersions flew back and forth in the British Parliament. Finally Jim Corbett was invited to kill the beast. The chase was to last several months, for the man-eater operated in a 1295 square kilometre area of rugged mountains. There were hardly any roads and no sophisticated equipment.
At one point, Corbett killed a male leopard, but was not convinced that he had killed the man-eater. Events were to prove him right. While the villagers were busy celebrating the death of the leopard, an 18-year-old girl on the other side of the village was killed and partially eaten by the leopard. The man-eater was still on the prowl. It was finally on 2 May 1926, that Jim Corbett killed the notorious killer, the Man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag.
Although Jim Corbett is the more famous man-eater hunter, one must mention Kenneth Anderson, who was almost as good at hunting dangerous beasts as Jim Corbett. Like Corbett, Kenneth Anderson has also written extensively about his exploits in the jungles of South India. The Leopard of the Yelagiri Hills and also the Black Panther of Sivanipalli, were among the many man-eaters and cattle-lifters killed by Kenneth Anderson.

Poaching; the worst crime against the Leopard

Poaching, or illegal killing of animals for commercial gains is the biggest enemy of animals like rhinos, elephants, big cats especially the tiger and the leopard are among the most poached animals.
At least 141 leopards had fallen to poaching in 2008, as compared to 124 leopards killed in 2007. In contrast, 24 tigers were killed that year, according to the Wildlife Protection Society of India. Leopard poaching numbers have fluctuated in the 16 years the wildlife society has worked on their conservation, in part due to vigils and law enforcement activities. However, many leopard deaths go undetected, and if all were recorded the numbers might go up.
On the other hand, the increased number of seizures due to improved wildlife law’s enforcement and NGO activities might be the reason in the increased numbers, rather than an actual rise in leopard killings. Authorities seize between 150 to 200 leopard skins and bodies from around the country every year—implying a steady market for leopard skins and body parts like teeth, bones and claws.
Indian leopard skin and body parts mostly end up in China, travelling via Nepal.
The skin serves various decorative purposes, while leopard bones and other parts are most likely masqueraded as tiger products and sold off for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
As India’s tiger population hovers around the 1,700 mark—most of them in protected reserves—it is getting more cost-effective for traders to get into the leopard business. There is increased value for leopard skins, claws, bones, and penises because it is getting much harder to poach tigers. It is also easier to hunt down leopards because they are more plentiful than tigers.
Although there is still no official estimate on the leopard population in India, wildlife experts and workers guess the population could be anywhere between 10,000 to 20,000. A detailed leopard census report is out recently but i need to grab a copy.
Unlike tigers, which prefer to live deep in the jungle, nocturnal and solitary leopards can adapt easily to a variety of landscapes, which include, increasingly, the fringes of human settlements.  It is this adaptability of this endangered cat that has proved to be a curse for it and made leopards vulnerable to run-ins with humans.

Conflict of Interests

“When leopards become a nuisance, many villagers resort to poisoning them and then sell the bodies off to traders for a pittance,” said Sajeev T.K. of the Bombay Natural History Society.
These skins and body parts then end up in big trading centers like Nagpur or Delhi before crossing the border and going away.
While poachers are responsible for supplying at least half of all leopard skins and body parts to China and some other countries, leopards killed by farmers and landowners too feed the trade.
As leopard habitats shrink, more of the predators attack livestock for food. Although the government compensates farmers who lose livestock to wildlife, payments usually take so long to arrive that villagers take matters into their own hands.For instance, reports of leopards being poisoned to death are getting more and more common. In November 2008, a five-year-old leopard was found dead due to suspected poisoning near the town of Gudalur, in Tamil Nadu.
Ensuring the faster delivery of compensation payments to farmers and creating alternative livelihoods for poacher groups would no doubt slow down the big cat trade, as it would no longer be so lucrative for the suppliers.
However authorities must also agree on changing the way land is used, for example by creating managed buffer zones in which humans and animals can peacefully co-exist.
There are still healthy populations of leopards, so even if we wake up right now, we can save these precious animals from, going the tiger way.


The Indian Leopard is listed as near-threatened in the IUCN’s (International Union for Conservation of Nature) list of endangered animals.The country’s legal frameworks for wildlife protection as well as the machinery for its enforcement have proved incapable of coping with challenges, like poaching, deforestation etc. Though there are two broad pieces of legislation — the Indian Forest Act, 1927, and the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, amended in 2003 — they are outmoded and far too weak. The punishment and penalty provided under these laws could be deterrents. 3 to 7 years imprisonment and a minimum fine of Rs 10,000 is not lenient by any measure. But the problem continues to grow. In part, this is because succeeding governments have not taken any of the other actions urgently required. Most of the sanctuaries don’t have enough guards, many of the posts of guards are said to be lying vacant. The guards who are posted at these reserves are under-equipped, under-armed, and in all respects outmatched and outwitted by the poachers. Cases of poachers bribing forest guards have also surfaced. A Leopard Conservation and Welfare Project has been introduced by the government of Maharashtra, in an all out effort to save the leopard’s population in at least in their state. Poaching is also out of control in parts of Madhya Pradesh and the southern Aravalli range.
What needs to be realized is that any distortion of the balance in nature, especially the disappearance of predatory animals like tigers and leopards, can be disastrous for the ecology of the entire region which they inhabit. Such a wildlife disaster would lead to a surge in the population of herbivores which, in turn, would speed up the terrible process of stripping the soil of its vegetative cover. Among the other consequences, would be the increased depositing of soil in rivers and more frequent ravaging floods.

The Solutions
The solutions for preventing these disastrous outcomes are few but far-reaching: the government must employ more people, give them the latest equipment, improve intelligence gathering in order to keep off poachers, and ensure that the people assigned to these tasks do their job.

I would like to conclude with quotes from a heart-rending story by India’s most sensitive nature writer, Ruskin Bond. Titled ‘No room for a Leopard’, this story was the reason why I became so sensitive to leopards, and was finally compelled to study and research these regal animals. Here are some excerpts:
 ‘‘I first saw the Leopard when I was crossing the small stream at the bottom of the hill. The ravine was so deep that for most of the day it remained in shadow. It must have sensed my presence because it slowly turned its head and looked down at me. It seemed a little puzzled at my presence there, and when, to give myself courage, I clapped my hands sharply, the leopard sprang away into the thickets making absolutely no sound as it melted into the shadows”
“I had disturbed the animal in its quest for food. I like to think that he was there and that he knew me and that he acknowledged my visit in the friendliest way-by ignoring me altogether. Perhaps I had made him confident-too confident, too careless, and too trusting of the human in his midst. I did not venture any further. I did not seek physical contact or even another glimpse of that beautiful sinewy body, springing from rock to rock…
It was his trust I wanted and I think he gave it to me. But did the leopard, trusting one man, make the mistake of bestowing his trust on others? Did I, by casting out all fear-my own fear and the leopard’s protective fear-leave him defenceless?
“Because next day, coming up the path from the stream, shouting and beating their drums, were the shikaris. They had a long bamboo pole across their shoulder and slung from the pole, feet up, head down, was the lifeless body of the leopard. It had been shot in the neck and in the head.
I walked home through the silent forest. It was very silent, almost as though the birds and animals knew their trust had been violated.”
“I remembered the lines of a poem by DH Lawrence and as I climbed the steep and lonely path to my home, the words beat out their rhythm in my mind.”
There was no room in the world for a mountain lion and me.’
This story is my plea to all those who can help conserve the Indian Leopard.