A Spotty Affair

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On the New Year’s day Kolhapur woke up to the news of a leopard that had strayed in Ruikar Colony. After hours of chaos amongst other things, the leopard was finally caught only to see it die. Spotting a leopard in a city is a pretty spotty incident and it’s death makes the whole thing even darker. Days after this happened, Kolhapur still isn’t over it. People are still guessing many a things about the leopard – the who, the what, the where and the how. To bring in light some of these facts, I met Mr. Neel Gogate, a specialist of the subject who helped us find satisfactory answers to most of the questions related to the incident. Mr. Neel Gogate has worked for the Tiger Conservation Project which included radio collaring of 10 tigers in Panna National Park of Madhya Pradesh. He has also been a part of the Tiger Landscape Project across Central India that was undertaken by the World Wide Fund for Nature. Since 2007, he is working with Wildlife Tourism and is currently posted at Pench that happens to be one of the important Tiger Reserves in Maharashtra. Excerpts from the interview:

Me: The leopard ending up in Kolhapur was a bizarre business. People are still trying to figure out how did it walk in here. How would you analyze it’s entry in the city?

NG: The most basic possibility in such cases is the terretorial supremacy of the beasts. Leopards come from the family of cats. These big cats, as we call them, have their own fixed and strong territories and they do not tolerate any kind of invasion in these areas. So when a leopard cub grows up, it has to walk out of it’s father’s territory or else it can get killed by the father. In such situations, if it walks out of it’s jungle, it can stray in human habitations.
Before we see the second case,  it should be understood that there are no dense forests on the peripgert of Kolhapur and that leopards don’t always need dense forests to live. They can manage in scanty vegetation equally well. We have the example of the leopards in Junnar near Pune from a few years ago where the leopards where found to have made their home in the fields of sugarcane. In this case too, we can therefore assume that this leopard might have made it’s home near Jotiba or Panhala or any other place on the outskirts of the city with scanty to moderate vegetation and while looking for a new shelter or for food, it may have entered the city without a clue in the dark and at the break of dawn, as the human presence began to be visible, it might have tried to look for a place to hide and ended up in Ruikar Colony as it is quite dense with trees as compared to other parts of Kolhapur.

Me: People were excited at the news of the leopard. The photos of the animal were circulated on whatsapp and facebook and lots of people crowded together to see it. How much do you think would this have affected the leopard?

NG: It affected in the worst manner. In fact, that is where everything began to go wrong. The very first thing was the curiosity of people. They flooded to see the leopard which obviously scared the poor animal. And when any animal gets scared, it loses it’s mind and tries to attack anything that comes close to it in order to protect itself. Every living being is programmed that way. For example, if I push you inside a room that is full of snakes without any hint about it, you’ll sure be scared. Even if the snakes are non-poisonous and motionless, you’ll be scared because you’re not used to that kind of surroundings. You might even, in an act of self-protection, try to kick away one or two snakes that are near your feet. Why do you expect the leopard to behave any different? Leopards are solitary creatures. And when a beast that is used to live by itself sees so many people and such a hullabaloo, it is definitely going to get scared and attack anyone who tries to get closer to it.

Me: It is being said that the forest officers acted irresponsibly which is also one reason why the leopard might have died. What do you think? Also, are there any guidelines declared by the forest departments to catch an animal like this?

NG: The Project Tiger which was started in 1972 by our government is now better known as National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). This body has issued specific guidelines for catching wild animals that stray in  areas of human residence. But since these kind of incidents don’t happen frequently the concerned officials may lack an experience of encountering and dealing with such situations. If you check the records of the last two years of the Wildlife Wing or any other department that deals with the wildlife in Kolhapur district, I don’t think you’ll get to see even ten incidents where they had to catch wild beasts. So the level of preparedness that is expected from these officers is generally not there. To top it, they keep getting posted in different places, different regions which makes it impossible for them to study the wildlife and it’s characteristics from a particular region. So we cannot blame them completely for everything that happened.

Me: But a strong public opinion is that they should have used the tranquilizing gun which would have put the leopard to sleep and it could have been caught easily. What do you have to say about it?

NG: The tranquilizing gun looks like any other normal gun but it is very sensitive. The syringes and drugs (medicines) that are used as the tranquilizer need to be handled with utmost care. If any mistakes happen during handling it and the drug enters the operator’s body, it can result in instantaneous death. We also have guidelines that says tranquilizing guns should preferably be handled by a qualified veterinary  doctor who has an experience or at least some knowledge about the behavior of wild animals. Of course such vets cannot be found in every city which sure is a drawback but if such a person is in a nearby city, he should be consulted and called for, if possible.
In other cases, the forest officers can use the tranquilizing gun too, but if the animal dies in their efforts to tranquilize it, all the blame of the mishap is put on that officer by the public and the media. To avoid this whole situation, the forest officers sometimes refuse to use the tranquilizing gun. Also, tranquilizing a wild animal is not easy as its seems to be. Injecting it with the tranquilizer is the last part of the whole process. See we only know that it is a leopard, we don’t know it’s age, it’s weight, we don’t know if it was sick or not, whether it had eaten or it was hungry, how tired it was, we know absolutely nothing. Morever in such cases the animal is under intense stress. In such situations it is recommended that we at least let the leopard calm down by keeping minimum human intervention around it before tranquilizing it. This would also help the drug to work more effectively on the beast since it won’t be anxious and excited.

Me: Wasn’t it the responsibility of the forest officials to make people leave the area for their smooth operation?

NG: I would rather say it was the responsibility of the people themselves.If people call themselves educated, they should have had been this responsible at least. But as I understand, it was a mob and people generally lose their minds when in a mob. So it was the responsibility of the police to isolate the area of the leopard. People are scared of the police so the right thing to do would definitely have been isolating the area where the leopard was and letting it calm down by letting it hide for a while which would have made the further procedures smoother.

Me: As you said earlier we didn’t know the leopard’s age, it’s weight, and all the other details. Are these details important from any other point of view too?

NG: Yes they are. Look when a carnivore gets older or when it’s canines become blunt, it cannot kill other wild animals to feed itself. Most of the carnivores have a hunting pattern which involves breaking off the prey’s windpipe. As these carnivores grow older, it becomes tough for them to chase the prey. Also, blunt canines make it difficult for them to kill the prey in their typical manner of hunting, so they turn to the easier preys that are domestic animals. This by default brings them closee to human habitations. If we trap such an animal and release it back in the forest, it may come back looking for an easier prey and again stray close to any village that happens to be the closest to that jungle. Thus the problem will continue. Therefore in such cases it is recommended that the animal be kept in a zoo.
However if it is fit enough to survive in the wild, it can be released back in the jungles. In any case, the animal can be tracked by radio collaring for a definite period of time.

Me: In the case of the leopard in Kolhapur, it was seen that it was finally caught by some inexperienced people in a manner that is best suited for catching the common swine. What do you think would have been the right manner of trapping it?

NG: (Laughs)
When it’s a mob, everyone wants to be a hero and then everyone seeks desperate measures to show people how they are better than the others. In this case I understand that a group of people expertised in catching monkeys was deployed to catch the leopard. They literally oveepowered the poor animal. Later on, to restrict it’s movements, they sat on it and pushed sticks in it’s mouth to calm it down. Why don’t they understand that when a leopard is exhausted, even it’s breathing would sound like a growl. Also, it is very wrong to hold a leopard in a cage that is open from all sides and surrounded by people as it happened in this case. People were rushing to see it once it was trapped and the increasing amount of the chaos made the leopard uneasy and more fierce. Wild animals are known to behave in the mist erratic fashion when caged and surrounded by people. In such conditions, the animal tries to dash it’s head against the bars of the cage in order to break it and ends up with serious damage to it’s skull and face. That can also cause the beast’s death. It is therefore advised that as soon as yhe animal is trapped, it should be isolated. It is also recommended that the cage should be covered with black plastic sheets so that it cannot see the surroundings and that helps it calm down in a better manner.

Me: What would you suggest the readers to do if they happen to be a part of such a situation hereafter?

NG: I would only suggest them to stay calm and let the poor animal wend it’s way. Stay indoor. No animal is going to enter your living room and pounce on you. So without being a part of a mob, it is always better to stay away from the scene and let the concerned officers do their work in the perfect conditions.

Me: Thank you very much for sharing this very valuable information with us. It was nice talking to you.

NG: (Smiles)
You’re welcome.