A furious game of catch-and-release is playing out in India with leopards.
Last November, a leopard was spotted in Delhi. Without any observed encounters with people, the wild animal was forcibly caught from a forest and sent to an undisclosed location.
Now, as per news reports, two leopards were recently caught from Sariska forest in Rajasthan (thought to be man-eaters), housed in Jaipur zoo, castrated, and then released back in Sariska. Since then, four people have died in the area.
Why were the Sariska leopards castrated? Sexual drive or breeding have nothing to do with a leopard’s ability to attack. People may be castrating domestic dogs to “calm” them, but no biologist worth her or his salt would advocate the same for leopards or wild animals.
In the case of Delhi’s leopard, announcements were made by the forest minister that the leopard would be caught for its safety as well as the safety of people.
In the Sariska case, it is reported that the forest minister gave the nod for the release of the two leopards after they were castrated. There are two things to note here. Firstly, these announcements are being made by ministers rather than the chief wildlife wardens, who are the ones empowered under the Wildlife Protection Act to take decisions on big cats. The decision, in short, is political rather than ecological.
The second problem that plays out is decisions are being made in a bipolar set up: either informed by the idea that leopards are bloodthirsty and should either be killed or caught; or that all big cats should be "free" regardless of the individual case.
Both views are extreme and unhelpful.
Let’s consider the first view - that leopards are evil, bloodthirsty and mad creatures. Just in the past few years, so many leopards have been killed in just one state - Haryana, on this premise. A leopard was clubbed to death in Mandawar last year after it entered a village. Two other leopards were shot in Karnal and Jind, and one more was found dead in Manesar. In the case of Delhi’s leopard, the decision to forcibly catch the animal from an existing wild area - Yamuna Biodiversity park - was taken because some politically connected people said they didn’t want the leopard there. Incidentally, it had not harmed anyone, and was not observed to leave the park.
In the case of Sariska, it is important to note that there was furious activism in the same state around Ustad tiger, who was caught from Ranthambhore and put in a zoo on charges of maneating. A section of activists (some petitions are still online) say Ustad should be "free", others, including the forest department say that he was a maneater. Charges of cruelty against Ustad still abound.
Perhaps it is backlashes these that lead to decisions to “free” the Sariska leopard. But experts say that the entire process of capture, not just freeing, is fraught with problems. Leopards are wild animals. They hate being in touch with people. Bizarrely then, decisions to capture are ad-hoc, political, and not monitored. In the Sariska case, it is not even clear what disturbances led the animals to be termed "man-eaters", while it is clear proper protocol was not followed for release.
“When you capture an animal just because it has been seen, or due to political pressure, or if it has eaten livestock, and you then put it in a trap cage, it comes into contact with lots of people feeding it etc. Then, you release it far away. This is likely to be disastrous for territorial animals. What if it is a young adult which was living with its mother or a mother who has left cubs behind? In the new place it has no idea about food, water and human beings are so plentiful in our country that you are making a man-eater of an otherwise innocent animal,” says Vidya Athreya from the Wildlife Conservation Society – India. “The problem is not just in release but also in capture,” Athreya says.
Even if “problem” wildlife is caught, due diligence and monitoring needs to be done before deciding to release it. Castration is not due diligence. And keeping a leopard locked up for months on end with frequent contact with people, is not the right protocol if the animal is to be later released.
The answers need to be knowledge-based.
This sounds very complicated. I am suggesting that neither are all leopards evil, nor should an animal be handled forcibly and freely by people and then be expected to be normal when freed, upholding the idea of “freedom and mercy for wild animals”. Broadly, leopards do best when left alone. In an age when humans are dominating decision-making, habitat and forest, the decisions for wild animals need be based on behavioural ecology rather than human politics.
The setting was suburban. We were in Sohna in Haryana. A young leopard had been injured by a vehicle. It needed treatment. Vets had captured the leopard to treat it. The animal had been tranquilised.
I was asked to observe only from a distance. The leopard should not see any people, said the vet to me. The young male twitched on a makeshift surgery table—under a dose of sedation. After the treatment it was shifted to a crate. It woke up slowly. The first thing it saw was one man who was yet to clear the vicinity. Furiously, it snarled. Its whiskers twitched. Then, methodically, the leopard bashed its head against the crate. Blood flowed down its face. There were people in the area, waiting to take pictures. The vet advised them not to, and to leave the animal alone.
The leopard was not furious because it wanted to eat us. It was angry as it was in a crate and wanted to be left alone, away from people.
To truly respect the leopard or tiger, we need to stop treating them as cuddly soft toys, and need to start respecting the boundaries between human and wild animal. If I had crossed the line (of vision) that day, I would have upset the leopard: though no harm would have come to me, on the safe side of the bars. But seeing too many people for too long would have over-familiarised the animal with people.
Leopards are not a photo-op or a press release. If we create problems for them, we have to clean up the mess. Because the stakes are so high in conflict for both human and animal, it is imperative for both human and wildlife rights that we get serious and methodical on the issue. Neither flippancy nor “feelings” can be substitutes.