Reunion in a Sugarcane Field
Written by Ajay Deshmukh
“Stop! Sir, please!” cried one of the villagers. “We won’t let you release these leopard cubs here. Keep them trapped in the cages as bait for their mother, and as soon as she enters the cage, please shift them to some other location.” Such scenarios have become an integral part of our work. People want us to rescue leopard cubs from their sugarcane fields, but when it is time for their release, they oppose it. On that day, we were in the same situation; we received a call from Forester of Narayangaon area in Pune district. We could easily guess that the call was regarding leopards, since we know that there are many of them in the vicinity. And sure enough, they informed us about the sighting of leopard cubs at Dhere Mala and asked us to rush to the site, to which we responded immediately.
We had nearly reached the site, but there was a huge crowd of two-wheeler’s, four-wheelers, and bicycles on the route. Stuck in the traffic, I thought “What must the cubs be going through right now, lost in the fields, away from their mother?”
Leopard cubs are naive about human behavior and today they were lost in a sea of panicky, excited, and curious humans. Some were trying to make them roar by pushing and hitting the traumatized cubs, and a few were even trying to get selfies. Somehow we made our way to the site and were shocked to see the most dreadful sight of four terrified cubs, with burns and scars, mewing with pain. The cubs needed treatment immediately, so we quickly carried them towards the rescue van. How did these cubs get burnt? In the rescue van, the forester told us that a farmer was harvesting sugarcane in his field. He had set his field on fire to burn dry leaves hoping to drive away or kill lurking snakes, a practice commonly followed when harvesting the field by hand. The mother leopard and cubs got trapped in the fire, and to protect her cubs she tried to attack a worker. The fire spread quickly and the farmer was saved from the leopard, but she got scared and abandoned her cubs in the field
Being a veterinary doctor, I treated the cubs. As their burns were not deep, I decided to release them as soon as possible at the same site. I was sure that the mother leopard would come back for her cubs. I shared my opinion with the founders of my organization Wildlife SOS, who agreed with me, and later obtained the consent from the Deputy Conservator of Forests of Junnar and the Range Forest Officer. Among the four cubs, there were two females and two males. The whole team got ready for the release operation. We left for the release site in three vans at around 6:30 p.m. I took charge of the cubs and carried them in a vegetable crate, held firmly on my lap. The healthiest cub who we named Gotya, was very mischievous, trying to climb out of the crate. I picked him up in my arms to prevent him being hurt again, just like I hold my five-month old son!
Little did we know what was in store for us! On reaching the site and even before we could figure out a safe spot to release the cubs, we were surrounded by aggressive, shouting and yelling villagers asking us to stop the release. One of the farmers elaborated on their concern, saying “We feel scared for our kids, Sir, they accompany us to the fields and play here. If even by mistake they cross paths with the mother leopard and cubs, it might prove fatal for them and for us too. If released here, these cubs will grow into adults who will be even more dangerous for the villagers.
We foresee this and so we won’t allow you to release them here.” He continued, “It’s our request, Sir, we have been writing about this to the forest officials and other authorities but our plea went unheard. Please don’t miss this opportunity, now that you have the cubs, lure the mother leopard into the trap and shift all of them to some other place.” That was the crunch. I felt dejected after listening to this, and had no words to express my feelings, to make them understand the value of these cubs. I was in a dilemma, seeing both sides of the coin, knowing that the villagers’ concern was completely valid.
In the midst of this stalemate, I took charge and began to justify the need to release these cubs at the same site. “When the mother leopard returns for her cubs and fails to find them, she will become aggressive and create havoc in the village.” Hearing this, the chaos subsided a bit and people became thoughtful. I saw that the situation was now turning in our favor and began to speak to assuage their fears, followed by the other team members. “We have handled similar situations in the past and successfully reunited cubs with their mother. Once reunited, for want of safety the mother transfers their cubs to another location. Our efforts were fruitful; people were now calm and with a positive approach. “If we don’t release the cubs here right now, they will be taken away to a leopard rehabilitation centre in Manikdoh and they will have to spend the rest of their life in captivity.” A few of the villagers were convinced. An old villager came forward and asked the others, “The mother leopard lived with us in these fields for so many years but did she ever harm us before?” This question forced people to think, and many of them nodded in agreement. The old man was supported by Krishna Dhere, a young man around 20–25 years of age. He stepped forward and said, “Sir, you set the cubs free here and let them meet their mother.”
We gathered at the spot where the cubs were to be released. A camera trap was fixed there to get images of the mother leopard when she come looking for her cubs. We kept the cubs in the vegetable crates and moved to a spot about from where we would be able to see the leopard’s movement. It was 10:00 at night and we were extremely hungry, so we had some snacks, and then we waited for the mother to arrive.
All of a sudden, we heard birds chirping and saw them flying to and fro in the vicinity. Suddenly the camera flashed. The prime function of a camera trap is to sense every movement in front of it and flash simultaneously. This meant that it had sensed some movement. We all were overwhelmed, congratulating each other and celebrating the success of our operation.
Our team was keen to go to the site but I told them to wait as it would take time for the mother leopard to carry away four cubs. It was around 2:00 a.m., and having waited for more than four hours, we took a decision to check on the cubs again. On reaching the spot, we were overwhelmed to see the crate empty. Nobody had slept the whole night, but the fact that the cubs were taken away by the mother leopard was such a relief that we forgot all the hardship we had gone through since the previous morning. So, finally, the mother and the cubs had reunited. All of us shed tears of happiness. We finally had a happy ending to our struggle, and to celebrate it what could be better than a hot cup of tea on a chilly night. The celebrations continued on our way to Narayangaon.
In Maharashtra’s Junnar region, agricultural landscapes with high human density are known to harbor leopards. The region is devoid of wild ungulates, but domestic animals include cattle, water buffalo, goats, fowl, dogs, cats, as well as feral pigs. To address these problems, specifically to house and care for leopards injured during man – animal conflicts, a leopard holding facility was established in Manikdoh, Maharashtra, in 2002. The centre was expanded in 2007 when the government partnered with Wildlife SOS to improve upon the existing facility. Wildlife SOS along with the Forest Department reaches out to local communities through workshops, talks, sensitization and awareness drives, educating people about leopards and their behavior, leading to better understanding, tolerance, and reduction in the incidence of conflict, enabling an environment for threatened wildlife to flourish. Most people have adapted to the presence of leopards in their landscape. Some say they walk after dark in groups, armed with torchlight’s, and usually talk aloud to avoid startling a large cat. They also claim that leopards do not confront people, but should it happen, they would give space for the feline to walk away. Many families confidently sleep out in the open, while livestock and poultry are secured in enclosures.
In order to reduce the response time in rescue and rehabilitation of animals trapped in conflicts, the Forest Department and Wildlife SOS have formed a team of 30 villagers from 10 villages in the Junnar range the Junnar Rescue Team (JRT). The JRT team consists of handpicked, trained volunteers from villages prone to man – animal conflict. Villagers are likely to listen positively to their own people in times of crisis. They are the first to react, reach, and represent the Forest Department at the site. JRT does not only bridge the response time in rescue and rehabilitation, but generates employment for locals and helps increase the participation of common citizens in wildlife protection.
So far we have successfully reunited more than 25 such instances of mothers and cubs. We find if done with some thought and care then the mother takes away her cubs. This is a good lesson for all other leopard areas in the country where often cubs are taken away to a life in captivity. This is one more of our endeavours to ensure that humans and leopards can co-exist in the same place with minimal problems to each other.
Ajay Deshmukh is a Senior Veterinary Officer for Wildlife SOS based in Pune, Maharashtra
This entry was posted on Saturday, December 8th, 2018 at 8:06 AM
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