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It's time to grant the leopard safe passage

Leopards don’t appear as populous as other animals because they usually stay hidden. Yet, because they are alongside us, we need a better plan for them

A leopard at Pench National Park. According to an estimate by the Wildlife Institute of India, we may have 12,000 leopards in India. (Neha Sinha)

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This February, a leopard tiptoed in to a court in Ghaziabad.

My phone pinged soon after with one gag after another. “Tiger in Court”. “Leopard seeks justice”. “Leopard returns to land it was ousted from, with papers this time.”

For the people at court and the leopard, though, it was a series of unfortunate events. Reports say the leopard injured a few people. Yet, videos from that day reveal more. Facing a grown leopard, people had no idea what to do, so some did what base instinct told them—attempting to beat up the animal and scare it off. But when cornered, even a deer will lash out. And the Indian leopard is what a deer isn’t—an apex predator.

The leopard interprets its world through razor-sharp features: whiskers that sense space and vibrations, a tail that helps balance as it climbs, claws that help grip surfaces—and reality. On that spring day at court though, the leopard’s senses must have been overwhelmed by the reality of people shouting, screaming and coming for it. In the videos, we see a person moving to bash the big cat with a shovel, and, later, a group of people trying to beat it with sticks through a closed grill as blood fell freely down its whiskers. For a stalk and ambush predator, being seen by people is akin to a violation. The leopard survives on camouflage. But it thrives on being a ghost—there, but not there.

Around the same time as the court incident, I was in the central Indian highland forest in Madhya Pradesh. Silver-coloured Sterculia urens, also known as ghost trees, grew resplendently through rocks. Dry teak leaves, as large as faces, clattered to the ground. In the golden air, we had scried a movement in the bushes but I could see nothing at all. About eight minutes later, we saw it. It was a leopard, sitting calmly between the trees like a house cat. It was giving me a withering look. “A ghost among the ghost trees,” I told myself, trying to be clever. The more accurate thing to say is that the leopard had seen me first. It always does see us first—and usually chooses to take a U-turn away from us.

It’s possible many of us have seen a leopard through the trees, imagining the dappled light has no spots in it. To really look, and to look again, is to understand that the leopard is like a film photo being developed. As your concentration deepens, the spots, the tail and the whiskers make themselves evident. A sudden movement towards the animal would be akin to flooding the darkroom with light and ruining the image. That day, it almost seemed like the leopard from the forest had walked in to court, and with lights and flashlights on it, was leaching itself of colour—its image and body spoiled forever.

According to an estimate by the Wildlife Institute of India, we may have 12,000 leopards in India. They don’t appear as populous as other animals because they usually stay hidden. Yet, because they are alongside us, we need a better plan for them. The first, most crucial one is: In trying to deal with a wild animal, don’t deal with it. Turn away and leave the area.

Spots give the Indian leopard a dappled, ghost-like quality, making them almost impossible to see.
Spots give the Indian leopard a dappled, ghost-like quality, making them almost impossible to see. (Neha Sinha)

National Tiger Conservation Authority guidelines say tigers and leopards that enter populated areas need to have a committee monitoring them. Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code must be enforced in areas with emergencies (to avoid crowds from gathering). But in situations like those at the Ghaziabad court, there is no time for committees. We need responses that are trained and sure. Thus, it is time to invest structurally in creating rapid response teams for areas with leopards.

Traditionally, this gap has been filled by non-governmental organisations, who are skilled, but not everywhere. The training needs to be done in a systematic way across the country so that each district goes beyond a sticks-and-stones approach. These teams must be empowered to give large animals safe passage, and to capture when necessary. No one else, not even a lawyer seemingly defending his courthouse, should try to face the animal.

The second aspect is that of wildlife education. When facing naked fear, coherent thought is difficult. Thus, responses should come from a place of knowledge. Our schools need to teach students the basics of survival. How to administer first-aid. How to climb, how to float, and how to deal with high-altitude sickness. And what to do (and equally, what not to do) around wild animals.

There is a third aspect, and that is of garbage. Garbage forms a certain kind of ecology for animals. In Assam, stately, towering greater adjutant storks have learnt to eat from garbage (sometimes, leading to poisoning and death). In New York, the famous “pizza rats” emerge at night, sliding away with whole pizza slices from garbage bins. And in India, millions of dogs rifle through our litter, crunching up bones and dal-chawal.

As dogs feast on our leftovers, leopards snack on dogs. A study published in 2022 in Frontiers In Conservation Science by Nikit Surve et al finds that in the Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary (near the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai), dogs constitute over 60% of the wild leopard diet. If we want certain areas not to be visited by leopards, then we need to deal with our garbage better than just leaving it in municipal heaps.

What appears abundant today may not be so tomorrow. Saudi Arabia is working on rewilding itself with the critically endangered Arabian leopard. Cubs have been born in captivity, and the aim is to eventually release leopards in shortlisted sites. With our decades-old conservation practice, we may never need to breed leopards or tigers in captivity for release in the wild. But in order to make peace, we must surmount conflict first.

Each year, leopards fall into open wells in rural India. Frequently, they are beaten to death as they enter villages or homes. They get crushed by freight trucks on highways and speeding trains. When cornered, they climb trees or hurt people. In certain areas, they cause deaths. They have also emerged as a poster-child for tourism in the dry, hot areas of Bera and Jhalana in Rajasthan and the moist forests of Kabini in Karnataka.

In sum, the leopard tiptoes between adulation and conflict. To do it justice, we must grant safe passage and use the lens of trained, not amateur, responses. And to do ourselves justice, we must not imagine ourselves better than the beast.

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author of Wild And Wilful: Tales Of 15 Iconic Indian Species.

Also read: How the leopard became one of India's most adaptable big cats

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