- Historically, leopards in Assam have thrived outside protected areas. Several areas in Guwahati have inter-connected hillocks which were the natural habitat of leopards.
- As per an RTI by Sonitpur based activist Dilip Nath, 20 leopards have been caged in and around Guwahati from February 2014 to March 2019.
- There have been five incidents of lynching of leopards in Assam this year. While one leopard was lynched in Fatasil area of Guwahati in June, the other four incidents took place in Upper Assam districts like Dibrugarh, Jorhat and Golaghat.
On a lazy Sunday morning in June this year, with the pandemic keeping most people indoors, chaos ensued at Katahbari Pahar (hill) area in Guwahati – the rapidly urbanising city in Assam – couched between the eastern Himalayan foothills.
The area falls under the Fatasil Reserve Forest (670.44 ha), one of the eight notified reserve forests in Guwahati. The local community members there had found an adult leopard sleeping on someone’s courtyard.
Before the forest department could arrive on the scene, the leopard fled into the jungle. However, a section of residents followed the animal inside the forest.
The carnivore was lynched and its body parts including its teeth were removed by the irate mob. Subsequently, a video clip circulating on social media showed the group parading the carcass of the leopard on the streets. Later, police arrested six people for alleged involvement in the killing of the animal.
The cruel treatment of the leopard by a mob has reignited the discussion on shrinking forests leading to humans elbowing out wildlife and the resulting conflicts in expanding urban spaces. The incident in June 2020 is the fifth incident of a leopard being lynched in Assam in the current year. The earlier incidents took place in Upper Assam districts of Dibrugarh, Jorhat and Golaghat.
Historically, leopards in Assam have thrived outside protected areas. The conflicts have arisen in the last 30 years largely due to fragmented habitats and lack of familiarity with leopards as more and more people move to the hills.
Stating that the leopards are victims of perception, Jimmy Borah, biologist and consultant at Panthera, an organisation working on the conservation of wild cats, said decreasing awareness among people about leopards is a cause of concern.
“The general perception is that leopards hunt and kill people, which are not the fact. Leopards like any major carnivore prefer to avoid people,” said Borah.
Leopards (Panthera pardus) are struggling globally. They are currently categorised as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and are showing a decreasing population trend. In India, they are a Scheduled I species under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. As per the national leopard census done in 2015, 12,000-14,000 leopards were estimated to be in the country although northeast India was excluded from the census along with Gujarat, West Bengal and higher reaches of Uttarakhand.
Guwahati, the abode of leopards
While there has never been a proper census to count the number of leopards in Guwahati, the hillocks surrounding the city have always been a haven for these felines. But here is no reliable data available on human leopard interaction (HLI) in the city.
As per an RTI by Sonitpur based activist Dilip Nath, 20 leopards have been caged in and around Guwahati from February, 2014 to March, 2019.
Kaushik Baruah, honorary wildlife warden of Guwahati tells Mongabay-India, “In colonial times, seventy percent of Guwahati city was hills and forests. So for leopards which prefer elevated areas, hillocks near Kamakhya temple, Gotanagar, Jalukbari, Hengerabari Reserve Forest became safe refuges. In fact, until the 1980s, leopard-human interaction was negligible in Guwahati. When people began encroaching the hills and settle there, sightings of leopards increased as well.”
Mridul Bora, a research scholar from Gauhati University and Founder Secretary-General of the NGO Phantom has been working extensively on human leopard conflict management in Guwahati since 2014. “By studying their pugmarks and scat, we have identified a healthy population of leopards in the Gaushala area of the city. Apart from that, there is a good population in Kamakhya, Narengi-Satgaon, Jalukbari, Maligaon, Kahilipara and Narakasur hills surrounding the city.”
“People who have been living in the hills since 80-100 years never had a problem with leopards because they have been living with them. It is the recent settlers who are terrified of leopards because they are not familiar with the animal,” Mridul Bora adds.
Guwahati has many inter-connected hillocks which were the natural habitat of leopards. Hemkanta Talukdar, Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF), Central Assam Circle said: “For example, the Kamakhya hills are connected with Maligaon, Jalukbari up to Gorbhanga which connects with Meghalaya. These hills provided natural passage to the leopards. However, with rampant encroachment on the hills, this connectivity has been lost.”
Sensitising communities on leopards
On a fateful morning in November 2017, Dhirenpara-based Ranjita’s life was shattered. Her husband, 35-year-old Anwar Ali, who was a driver by profession, was mauled by a leopard that day which had taken refuge inside the premises of a school called Dhirenpara Sishu Vidya Niketan. Four other people were also wounded by the leopard though their injuries were not fatal.
“That day, a large mob was chasing the leopard. So to save itself, the animal entered the school. It actually tried to attack a boy but when my husband tried to save the boy, he was mauled by the leopard. He was then taken to Guwahati Medical College & Hospital (GMCH). However, his treatment was not done properly. There was excessive bleeding and the infection had spread to the entire body. Four days later, we lost him,” Ranjita recalled.”
Ranjita who now lives with her six-year-old son Rahul, however, doesn’t hold any grudge against the leopard. “The leopard didn’t attack my husband intentionally. When so many people chase and try to corner it, the leopard naturally becomes agitated. Then they will try to attack anyone who comes in their way. People should leave these animals alone,” she said
A year later, a memorial and awareness meet took place in the same school where the incident happened. Journalist and wildlife activist Mubina Akhtar who has been running a campaign called ‘Living with Leopards’ since April 2017 with support from World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-India, organised this event. Akhtar also helped Ranjita to navigate through the bureaucratic corridors and get a compensation of Rs. 400,000 for the death of her husband.
“We organise awareness and outreach programmes among the communities and try to raise awareness of human leopard interaction. We print brochures and posters and show them films related to leopards. We always tell them to leave these animals alone because they will retaliate when they are cornered. I have also advised people living in these hills to never venture out without a torch after dark and to ideally go out in a group at night,” Akhtar said.
Akhtar hails from Golaghat district which has seen considerable human leopard conflict over the years. She plans to carry out awareness campaigns in Upper Assam districts like Golaghat and Tinsukia once the pandemic subsides.
Terming leopards “less fortunate brother of tigers”, she said: “What I feel bad about is that people hardly care about leopards. Back in 1995, police had gunned down a leopard when it entered a residential area in Rehabari. I was very disappointed by the incident. So, a year later, we published a memoriam in its remembrance in the newspapers. So, that created some impact in the minds of people.”
In human-leopard interaction cases, crowd management often becomes the biggest challenge for the authorities. Veterinarian Kushal Konwar Sarma has tranquilised five leopards in and around Guwahati in his career. “The single biggest issue we face while tranquilising a wild animal like a leopard is hostile behaviour from the crowd. Crowd management is always the bigger challenge, much more than the actual task of tranquilising the leopard. Often, the presence of a large crowd makes the leopard nervous. In its agitated self, it beats its head on the iron rod of the cage and in the process, suffers serious injury” he said.
Depredation of prey
One theory is that with the migration of people to the hills, the interaction between them and leopards have increased because these felines are attracted to domestic livestock.
Anjan Sangma, a research scholar from Gauhati University who has been studying the feeding and habitat ecology of leopard said they are “basically lazy animals. They live by feeding on all sorts of animals like stray dogs, monkeys and even frogs and rats. So, when people started settling on the hills, their livestock became easy prey for leopards.”
He narrates an incident when a leopard had attacked the cow of chowkidar (watchman) of the hostel in Gauhati University where Sangma was living at that time. “The leopard couldn’t carry off the cow as it was tied. But its bite crushed the windpipe of the cow and it died subsequently. Because most of the livestock sheds are made in an unscientific manner, it makes the leopard’s job easy,” he said.
Mridul Bora says that this also increases the possibility of retaliatory killing. “People who are rearing domestic livestock like goats, cows and chicken are very poor. Their livelihood depends on this livestock. When leopards kill livestock and they don’t get timely compensation, they might try to retaliate by killing the leopard through poisoning” he added.
CCF Talukdar, however, mentions that the forest department hardly gets complaints of livestock depredation by leopards in Guwahati.
Often, the lynching of a leopard in the hands of a mob leaves its cubs as an orphan. While they don’t survive in many cases, some are fortunate to get a new lease of life.
On March 12, 2014, a six-month-old male leopard was brought from Mariani in Jorhat district to Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) near Bokakhat run jointly by Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), Assam Forest Department and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). A year later, three infant females which were found in Jorhat were also brought there. Since then, these four animals have made CWRC their permanent home.
Samshul Ali, veterinarian of CWRC says these leopards are kept on a diet of meat equivalent to 10 percent of their total body weight. “They mostly eat mutton and sometimes chicken,” he said.
However, while they get readymade food, they are subjected to lifelong captivity. WTI Joint Director Rathin Barman tells Mongabay-India, “These leopards will have to spend the rest of their lives in CWRC because we can’t release them in the wild. Hunting is a skill carnivores learn from their mother. As these leopards don’t possess that skill, they won’t be able to survive outside.”
One leopard which was hand-reared in CWRC since 2006 was shifted to Nagaland Zoological Park in Dimapur in 2013.
However, when a grown-up leopard is caged, they are generally sent to Assam State Zoo cum Botanical Garden in Guwahati. According to a source from the zoo, there are currently 13 leopards housed there. These leopards are often released back to the wild after their injuries are treated in the zoo.
However, releasing a leopard back to the wild has its own complications. Firoz Ahmed, Head of Tiger Research and Conservation Division at the NGO Aaranyak said, “Capturing a leopard and releasing it elsewhere is a very unscientific method of conflict management. Rather it can increase conflicts as such released animals tend to come back to its home territory and face human settlement and disturbances on its way. A hungry leopard will also often depend on livestock while homing back.”
The road ahead
As per 2011 census, the population of Guwahati was 963,429 and currently, it is estimated to be more than 1.1 million. Stating that the future of leopards in Guwahati doesn’t seem particularly bright, Sangma adds: “Guwahati is growing fast and it possibly won’t stop expanding until the next two decades. We will be able to save the leopards in Guwahati only if there is no further encroachment on the hills. If we leave them alone, they will automatically thrive.”
Firoz Ahmed believes that co-existence with leopards is definitely possible. “Case in point is Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in Mumbai which has a high density of leopards. But the state forest department should take up leopard estimation as a priority so that they can be managed better. The problem is maybe because the species is considered widespread and common, leopards were never a species of interest for forest managers as well as wildlife researchers,” he said.
According to Talukdar, the forest department is planning to set up camera traps in November across various locations in Guwahati to record the presence of leopards. “Leopards are highly adaptive animals who never had any problem in living near humans. They are the apex predator of Guwahati and sit on the top of the food chain of urban wildlife of our city. Whenever a leopard comes out, people tell us to tranquilise them and take them away. By doing this, we are disturbing the ecological balance. This city belongs to them as much as it belongs to us. We need to learn to live with them,” he said.
Read more: Leopard genes hint at a probable population decline in India a century or two ago
Banner image: Historically, leopards in Assam have thrived outside protected areas. Several areas in Guwahati have inter-connected hillocks which were the natural habitat of leopards. Photo by Manash Das.