By Amit Bhattacharya
A leopard that turned up in Meerut last Sunday was the latest in a series of dramatic brushes Uttar Pradesh has had with big cats in the past two months. The encounters have left nine people dead and served another reminder about a seldom-acknowledged fact — that big cats can survive in human landscapes, remaining unseen for surprisingly long periods of time.
Consider the unlikely places in the state where the big cats have showed up. Meerut, for instance, is an urban sprawl barely 60km from the national capital. The district has an official forest cover of barely 2.39%. The city hasn't had such an incident — a leopard straying into the heart of town — in a long time.
Equally surprising was the appearance of a tigress (the animal's sex remains unconfirmed) in Sambhal district , some 120 km from the nearest tiger habitat. The carnivore's presence came to light only after it killed a 21-year-old youth in Mithunpur Mouza village. The tigress, believed to be a young adult, had apparently spent weeks moving invisibly through sugarcane fields, crossing national highways, railway tracks and rivers. Six more deaths have since been attributed to the man-eater , the last one on February 6.
The events reinforce the point that issues relating to big cats are not restricted to wildlife sanctuaries. An unknown number of these animals, mainy leopards, live permanently in human habitats — a phenomenon rarely acknowledged even by conservationists.
"Nobody accepts their presence outside the parks. When a big cat comes into a city or other unlikely place, it's seen as having 'strayed in'," says Vidya Athreya, a wildlife biologist who has studied the carnivores in human setting. Only when these carnivores are recognized as a part of the human landscape can there be an effective approach to dealing with conflict issues, she adds.
Take last week's leopard 'intrusion' into Meerut. It's not clear how the predator got into the city. But when it was discovered in a godown near Sadar Thana, the authorities' response reeked of ignorance. A crowd was allowed to gather outside. Someone even tried to go in, getting attacked in the process and letting the animal out in the town. Later, when the spotted cat got trapped inside a hospital ward in the cantonment area, camerapersons were all over the place. To top it all, tranqui lizer shots proved ineffective.
"There's a standard operating procedure for dealing with such situations brought out by the National Tiger Conservation Authority. It's shocking that police and administration in Meerut, which is in the sugarcane belt where leopard presence is expected, weren't aware of what had to be done," says Athreya.
Uttar Pradesh administration's sensitization over man-animal conflict situations isn't any worse than most states in the country. However its location, population and land use patterns form a potent recipe for such conflicts. UP is one of the most densely inhabited states, with 16.2% of India's population living in 7.3% of its land. This mass of humanity sits adjacent to prime forests across the Terai belt such as the Corbett landscape, where tiger densities have been recorded as the highest in the world.
As competition for territory inside these sanctuaries increases, some tigers are bound to push southwards into human habitations in UP.
"Man-animal conflict around the Terai areas is only going to grow," says YV Jhala, wildlife biologist at Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India. "In a number of places on the UP side, you have thin, linear strips of forests jutting into human settlements. These forests are surrounded on three sides by farmland and villages, which makes these spots highly vulnerable."
Add to that the vast tracts of land under sugarcane cultivation all across western UP. Carnivores see sugarcane plantations as grasslands providing safe sanctuary and a good supply of prey in the form of wild pigs, dogs, nilgai and smaller animals. A cameratrap study conducted by Athreya in the sugarcane belt of Ahmednagar district in western Maharashtra, found a high leopard density of five per 100 sq km, as many striped hyenas and other smaller carnivores. Another study done under her supervision proved to be even more startling. A tigress, later named Kala, that had fallen into an irrigation canal was radio collared and tracked. Kala traversed 455km in four months, often staying near human settle ments. She even hunted metres away from main roads and repeatedly went past cowsheds without attacking any livestock — throughout remaining unseen by humans.
"A majority of large carnivores in such rural habitats live peacefully with humans. But we know so little about the life of these animals that it's difficult to predict the stress points that would lead to conflict. More researchers need to study the phenomenon," says Athreya. More....