When two man-eater leopards resulted in 33 leopards killed!
As conflict situations increase, there are lessons to be learnt from the past. Looking at the source of the conflict and solving it could help provide a long-term solution rather than a shoot-and-kill approach.
Suddenly and sadly, ‘problem tigers’ and ‘problem leopards’ are everywhere in the country. Following the removal of one tiger in Yavatmal, by means now contested, there are more demands to remove ‘straying’ carnivores from places ranging from Uttarakhand to Satkosia in Odisha to Barobazar in Assam to Ballarpur in Maharashtra. In the last case, it is a ‘problem leopard’ that has attacked three in Kothari village that is now facing the crossfire. All three attacked were out to defecate when the leopard pounced on them.
Even as public pressure builds up on the forest department, the first step before trapping the animal is to identify the right one using camera traps. Else, it can lead to the kind of folly witnessed in the past when one ‘man-eater’ resulted in 33 killed for want of a clear identification. This is what happened in Kadur taluk of Chikmagalur a few years ago. The leopard population there has still not recovered.
Chikmagalur is well known for its beautiful mountains and thickly wooded forests. While a large part of the district has forested hilly regions receiving high rainfall, the eastern part of the district has dry level lands, receiving very little rainfall. One such taluk in Chikmagalur is Kadur.
Kadur is the biggest taluk and the area receiving lowest rainfall (less than 600mm annually) in the district. The taluk has large tracks of rainfed farm lands with some hillocks. Agriculture is the main source of income and groundwater the main source of water.
The taluk comprises Sindigere State Forest, Kalasapura State Forests, Tangli State Forest, Yemmedoddi State Forest, Basur Kawal Conservation Reserve and has many wildlife species like tigers, leopards, wolves, fox, sambar, wild pigs, four-horned antelopes, blackbucks, etc.
Leopards were commonly found in the forests of Kadur though they were hardly seen in the vicinity of villages. But between 1994 and ‘95, Kadur witnessed one of the worst human-leopard conflicts in history.
Around September 1994, a leopard was seen in Nagarahalli, a village adjoining Kalasapura State Forest. Naturally, it created panic among the villagers. As it caused no harm to anybody, people moved on with their routine lives. Two months later, an eight-year-old girl went missing in a nearby village called Turuvanahalli. When the villagers went looking for the missing girl, her clothes were found on a barbed wire fence but the body could not be found. Since a leopard was seen in the vicinity a few months ago it was suspected that the girl was killed by the leopard. Other than a few pug marks, no evidence was found to conclude that she was killed by the leopard.
However, two months later in January 1995 when a leopard killed and partly fed on a 80-year-old woman, the act was confirmed. Although it was a perfect opportunity to wait and shoot the leopard when it returned to feed on the body, it was a delicate situation. The victim’s son was working with the forest department and he did not want to leave his mother’s body for the leopard. The suspected leopard could not be located and the incident created tremendous amount of fear among the villagers.
The leopard/s continued to kill and feed on human beings in the surrounding area. The attacks were sometimes at night and sometimes during the day, and in the presence of people at times. By May 1995, eight people were killed and three were injured by the leopard/s in the village. Five of the victims were below 8 years of age and three above 80. People stopped going to their fields to work, children were not sent to schools and commercial activities were almost halted.
The forest department was under severe pressure to kill the leopards. IUCN’s Cat Specialist group headed by some of the renowned wildlife experts inspected the area and recommended that killing the suspected leopard was the only solution.
Accordingly, in June 1995 the forest department issued shoot and kill orders. Now, the challenge was to identify the suspected individual and shoot. There was no scientific method in practice back then to identify or locate the suspected individual.
Pressure from the local people was building up as the death toll had increased. Professional shooters were appointed by the forest department. Villagers who had once been highly tolerant searched every nearby hillock and den to kill the leopards and some hunting lobbies also tried to cash in on the situation. Any and every leopard seen in the area was shot dead.
Every time a leopard was killed, the area was taken over by another leopard which was also shot dead. In a period of about three months, a total of 22 adult leopards were shot in a small area of 20 sq km. At least11 leopard cubs also died.
Later on, post-mortem results of the leopards revealed that human body parts were found only in two out of the 22 adult leopards killed. It was also a shocking or rather surprising revelation that so many leopards coexisted in a human-dominated agricultural landscape, many of them without causing any disturbance or even detected by human beings. Unfortunately, by this time almost the entire population of leopard in the area was completely wiped out.
The man-eating can perhaps be traced back to the early ‘90s when the railway department had brought in many migrant workers to Kadur for expansion of the broad-gauge railway lines. Local hillocks were quarried to meet the requirement of stones for the railway work. Unclaimed bodies of migrant workers who died during work were left in open spaces on the hillocks as villagers did not allow them to be buried and firewood was often not available to burn the bodies. It is believed that one or two leopards regularly fed on these bodies and got used to human flesh.
The loss of the predators had a direct effect on the food chain. It was observed that the population of feral dogs and wild pigs which were under control for a long time suddenly increased around the villages and farms, resulting in crop losses to farmers. For a very long time, the people of Kadur faced crop damage in addition to their never-ending woes of water shortage for irrigation.
Now after 23 years, leopards are sometimes seen in the hillocks. People still panic on rare occasions when they hear or see a leopard. The animal meanwhile seems to be slowly recovering in the area, without causing much disturbance to the lives of people, as always.
Perhaps building awareness among the people and advising them to avoid nocturnal trips in areas where leopards have been sighted would be a first step. Studies have shown that in most cases leopards do not attack unless provoked or out of fear. Many have co-existed with humans without even being sighted. With wildlife habitat having shrunk considerably in the country, and biotic pressures inside on the rise, more and more wildlife is venturing out of protected areas. As humans and wildlife increasingly share spaces, if we are to protect both we need long-term solutions that go beyond sharp-shooting.