Authorities captured 357 leopards and translocated most of them in Karnataka between 2009 and 2016 citing the conflict with humans in violation of Union environment ministry guidelines, a study by Mysuru-based Nature Conservation Foundation has found. The study cited a questionnaire survey and said 64% of field managers from the forest department were unaware of the guidelines and only 1.9% followed them.
The 2011 guidelines discourage both the capturing and translocation of leopards as such measures have the potential of increasing the conflict.
The study, which was published in the Journal of International Wildlife Law and Policy last month, concluded the ministry’s guidelines had no impact at least in Karnataka. It has called for more engagement with field managers, local communities, and the regional media to reduce fear and perception of risk from leopards.
The outcome of the captures from Karnataka was available for 314 of the 357 leopards. Of these, 85.4% (268) were translocated to other forests, 10.8% (34) were taken in captivity, and 3.8% (12) died. Locals killed at least 29 out of 268 translocated leopards while others were sent to protected areas.
The study found the captures increased by 9.67 annually from 2009 to 2016 and monthly translocations of the so-called problem leopards increased threefold in Karnataka during this period.
Livestock depredation (38.1%) was cited as the main reason for the capture of leopards. Other reasons include the rescue from snares and wells (15.7%), anxiety caused due to their sightings in human habitations (13.7%), and the leopards entering human dwellings (10.9%).
The guidelines say mere sighting of a leopard in the vicinity of human habitations does not necessarily mean the animal has strayed from a forest and needs to be captured. They caution that arbitrary removal of leopards could lead to increased conflict. The space vacated by a captured animal is taken by another leopard.
The guidelines emphasise the focus of conflict management should be on long term solutions like better sanitation and waste management to keep feral pig and dog populations in check and making leopard proof livestock sheds.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has listed leopards in the “vulnerable” category. The leopard is a Schedule 1 animal under the Wildlife Protection Act, which means it has to be provided absolute protection. The population of some of the leopard subspecies has declined by 70% in India, according to a 2016 study in the Journal of Zoological Science, even as the species are highly adaptive carnivores with a varied diet.
Sanjay Gubbi, the study’s lead author, said the capture of 357 leopards in an eight-year period is a huge number. “Much more awareness regarding the guidelines and engagement with field-level officers is needed to ensure the implementation of the guidelines. We have a federal system and wildlife is on the concurrent list. It should not be a few biologists sitting and developing guidelines. Inputs should be sought from state forest departments and there should be capacity building of field staff,” he said.
Gubbi said it is very difficult to say what happened to the leopards after they were translocated. “The process of translocating can be very stressful for leopards. In most cases, leopards do not get the same importance as tigers. They are just dumped and whether they are adapting to the new place is not followed through.”
Gubbi said people are becoming less tolerant of leopards as they have not been provided solutions to livestock losses. “Often a leopard is translocated just because it has been seen in the vicinity. Leopards are among animals facing very high conflict like elephants. One of the reasons may be that they are expanding their range and moving to areas where they were not there at all.”
Vidya Athreya, a Pune-based wildlife biologist who specialises in leopard-human conflict, said leopard capture is increasing in Karnataka but not necessarily in other states. “That is because, as the authors state, there is no engagement with the different groups of stakeholders which are important to reducing the perception of threat. In Maharashtra, for instance, many areas that had a lot of traps in the past have reduced it a lot, especially Mumbai, because we follow the guidelines, engage with the important stakeholders including the media to bring about the change.”
There was no immediate response to a request for comment from the Karnataka forest department.