Guidelines to avoid a man animal conflict

From Bangalore Mirror

How prepared are we to deal with man-animal conflict? We sift through the tizzy and the panic in the wake of the Whitefield leopard saga to find out

For residents of Whitefield, the season of love was marred by fear and rumour-mongering; spent in dread. Less than a week after a captured leopard escaped from the rescue centre at the Bannerghatta Biological Park (BBP), there have been a flurry of developments – a committee has been instituted to investigate the bizarre turn of events, civic activists have been pointing to the garbage problem, there is talk of a safari for the 20 leopards at the rescue centre and forest department officials are under severe censure from citizens and stakeholders. But these are all short-sighted measures, say wildlife activists and people in the know. Any kind of sane resolution to the problem has to begin with simple awareness – and an understanding of the tenuous-yet-thriving urban jungle that surrounds the denizens of Bengaluru.

That’s the point made by conservationist Sumanth Madhav. The issue of ‘conflict’, he says, is making more noise now, due to social media. But historically, it’s always been there. Calling the leopard a “21st century cat” — adaptable and intelligent — he says spotting one is no reason to panic. “We just need to learn how to live side-by-side with them.” An echo of what K Ullas Karanth, director for Science-Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), had told media earlier this week — leopards have been living around Bengaluru but also not just around most human settlements across 80,000 sq km area in Karnataka. This is their habitat as much as ours.

What is needed, though, is better preparedness, modern equipment and a strict protocol in such cases, all of which were missing in the events of the past two weeks. Activists point to the leopard’s escape from the rescue centre. As explained by media (‘One smart cat with exit plan’, Feb 15, 2016) – housing the cat in the tiger enclosure cost the BBP heavily, allowing the animal to escape and fuelling further panic. The root of the matter seems to lie in the fact that the rescue centre was already too crowded with 20 leopards, which is why this one was housed in the tiger enclosure.

Santosh Kumar, Executive Director, BBP, admits that not having an over-hanging sheet on the fence allowed the animal to jump out. He explains: “Since this animal had come from the wild, we did not want to keep it in the crawl area (the free space inside the enclosure). We needed an
isolated holding area, which was there in the tiger enclosure. The main factor in our decision to do so was that since it was from the wild, it would make the effort to run away. And the holding areas in the leopard enclosure were full.”

Now, that begs the question – why was the enclosure full? Dr Nirupama Jaisingh, Veterinary Officer of Zoo Hospital at the park, says, of the 20 leopards, only five have been rescued from ‘conflict’ situations. The rest are a surplus, as a result of breeding, which are being housed in the holding area. “The rescued leopards have been here since before I joined. They are all doing well,” she says.

Common logic would ask why the crowding situation in the rescue centre was not averted simply by releasing the captured leopards back into their habitat. But as Sunetro Ghosal, researcher for Mumbaikars for SGNP (a project started by the Forest Department in 2011 to manage human-leopard interactions in and around Sanjay Gandhi National Park, which is located within the municipal limits of Mumbai) explains, “It’s difficult to predict how the leopard has been affected and traumatised by the trapping process. If you are relocating the leopard, then you are releasing it in an area it knows nothing about. Also by trapping you have opened up the space that will be occupied by another leopard, who may not know the area as well. These practices generally lead to an increase and escalation of conflict between humans and leopards,” he explains.

A conservationist who did not want to be named, adds that it depends on the “physical condition” of the animal, which might require that it be kept in captivity to be treated. “If it’s injured, it needs to be treated in a rescue centre. Living in a human-managed area over a period of time will disorient the leopard completely, because it starts looking at humans as a source of food, and if released, might approach humans for food. The home range of a leopard in the city could be 6-7 sq km, and in the wild, could be 30 sq km radius. Relocation would disorient it completely – it’s not equipped to go back.”

Kumar also avers: “The reason they have not been released is because they have had a previous incidence of human-animal conflict. As human encroachment has increased, it’s difficult to say that the released leopard won’t go back to the human population.”

The unpopular, but practical solution, in these cases, the conservationist says, is to put down the leopard instead of housing it in captivity – because the latter is a situation that benefits neither the animal nor us.

Vidya Athreya, a biologist with Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) India, points out that leopards live in “human-use areas” and “India is full of people and releasing a predator in a new place will only create serious problems near the release site”. She adds, “So we cannot simply release them because you see them in captivity. There is a good reason why they are in captivity.” Instead, she raises another important question – was the big cat caught only because it was seen, or had it attacked livestock? “Those kinds of (unwanted) captures of innocent animals are also a violation of the Wildlife Protection Act.”

One of the solutions to the overcrowding being considered by the BBP is a leopard safari over 20 hectares. According to Kumar, this will offer the animal more room, while also resolving the space crunch, and creating an additional revenue stream for the park, which runs on revenue, and interest from a corpus of FDs.

The safari, believes the conservationist, is not a bad idea, as long as it’s done in a minimalistic way and doesn’t become too stressful for the animals. And while he concedes that by and large, the workers, vets and handlers are those who have grown up with animals and do what they can with good intentions and with the best interests of their wards at heart, there is huge room for improvement in their training and equipment.

Meanwhile, Kumar shares their plans to avert a similar situation in the future: “More than 100 lions have been rescued from circuses and human-conflict incidences in the last 20 years. Of these, 23 remain. So we have empty enclosures that we are planning to repurpose, and make them suitable for leopards. We will keep at least two cages empty for emergencies, so as to avoid similar incidents.”

As in most cases, however, the long-term solution lies in prevention and preparedness. Athreya cites the lessons learnt. “In Mumbai, the conflict has reduced, and this can be the case everywhere else too if we follow protocol,” she believes.

The Forest Department, she says, worked with all stakeholders – police, municipality, scientists — and the media “put pressure on the authorities to manage garbage and start school buses for children in the vulnerable areas”, which has led to an effective resolution of the problem.

Indeed, as Ghosal puts it, in many cases the attitude of the public has gone from anger and aggression to an acceptance of shared space. “In the last two years, the forest department has not received panicked calls about leopards that were seen in housing colonies with demands for trapping. Since 2012, there have been seven fatal attacks and four non-fatal incidents related to leopards around SGNP. There have been no incidents reported in the last two years,” he says.

The amity has been achieved by a sustained effort by the Forest Department. “The project has worked to build relationships between the forest department and stakeholders – residents, police, municipality and the media. You can’t change the fact that you live in a landscape of leopards. But you can learn how to live with them. Simple things – ensuring the area is well-lit, efficient management of waste that reduces rodent and stray dog presence – will help reduce the leopard’s visits to the area,” he says. The project has also engaged with the police to implement standard operating procedures for leopard incidents and their role to manage crowds, while the media has been sensitised to provide more restrained coverage of incidents and so on,” he adds.

In Bengaluru, this could translate to having guards for the community, and a concerted awareness campaign on understanding how to live with the animal. “People need to be told that they might spot the animal, and that it’s fine. The Forest Department, in partnership with NGOs in the meantime, needs to monitor urban wildlife – not just leopards, even animals such as the Urban Slender Loris. Camera traps are a great way to keep track of these animals, for instance,” explains the conservationist.

In essence, what most of these experts suggest is the possibility of our peaceful coexistence with the big cats. All it requires is awareness and a respect for protocol.

What we should know 
Leopards are not usually inclined to attack people. On the contrary, they avoid humans.

Wild carnivores may attack in self-defence, and, therefore, it is advisable to avoid provoking them. The mere sighting of a leopard in the vicinity does not necessarily mean the animal has strayed from a forest and needs to be captured.

Arbitrary removal of leopards could lead to increased conflict. The space vacated by a captured animal will soon be occupied by another.

The focus should be on long-term solutions. These include better sanitation, including proper garbage disposal so that the populations of feral pigs and dogs are kept under check. Providing proper toilet facilities in rural areas would go a long way in reducing incidences of accidental encounters with leopards.

Leopards often take up residence in croplands and tea gardens. Farmers should be made aware that livestock sheds need to be strong and leopard-proof.

Management of crowd
Crowd management is crucial to any successful animal rescue operation. The ER team, more often than not, is obstructed and hindered in its activities by a furious mob, making rescue difficult.

Support and cooperation of the police and civil administration should be ensured in advance to facilitate effective crowd control, and to discourage formation of crowds.

The area should be cordoned off with barricades, and the public alerted through a public address system. Regular updates should be made available to the administration and the local public.

An ambulance should be kept ready at all times to attend to any medical emergency.

SOURCE: Guidelines for Human-Leopard Conflict Management, issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2011)

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