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For India’s Captive Leopards: Life Behind Bars

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 20, 2016

Leopard detention camp, in Mumbai (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Leopard detention camp, in Mumbai (Photo: Richard Conniff)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

When an escaped leopard tackled a man at poolside on a school campus in the southern Indian city of Bangalore early this year, the video went viral. The victim was one of the wildlife managers trying to recapture the animal. His colleagues finally managed to tranquilize it late that night and return it to a nearby zoo that was serving as a rescue center for a population of 16 wild-caught leopards. A week later, the leopard squeezed between the bars of another cage and escaped again, this time for good.

All the news and social media attention focused on the attack — and none on the underlying dynamic. But that dynamic affects much of India. Even as leopards have vanished in recent decades from vast swaths of Africa and Asia, the leopard population appears to be increasing in this nation of 1.2 billion people. The leopards are adept at living unnoticed even amid astonishingly high human population densities. But conflicts inevitably occur. Enraged farmers sometimes kill the leopards. But trapping is the more common response, and religious and animal rights objections have made euthanasia for unwanted animals unthinkable.

Thus anywhere from 100 to several hundred wild-caught leopards nationwide have ended up being trapped and locked away for life, in facilities that often cannot provide proper security, space, veterinary care, or feeding.

In the Bangalore incident, the attack victim, leopard biologist Sanjay Gubbi, managed to fight off the leopard and stagger away with claw wounds on his right arm and torso, requiring 55 stitches. Two others working on the bungled re-capture effort also suffered minor injuries. The leopard, an eight-year-old male, had escaped in the first place (and later re-escaped), according to a manager at Bannerghatta Biological Park, because it was being kept there in cages designed for tigers or lions, not leopards.

For lack of space, other rescue centers and zoos have kept leopards for months at a time in the box traps that were used to catch them. Until recently, one national park even put leopards on display in that fashion as a tourist attraction. Other facilities confine the leopards to narrow cells without access to outdoor space, though these animals are accustomed to roaming ten miles a day or more in the wild. The people charged with caring for the animals often have no way of doing better in the absence of adequate facilities and financial support.

At Bannerghatta, said Sujay Suresh, a veterinarian and assistant director there, each leopard gets a 15-by-15-foot cubicle in a holding facility, and the park’s 16 wild-caught and 15 zoo-born leopards take turns sharing a one-acre outdoor area. The government has approved a plan for larger facilities, but without a budget. Feeding and routine care alone cost about 1,200 rupees ($18) a day per leopard, said Suresh, and more than that for the zoo’s three wild-caught tigers and 16 Afro-Asiatic lions confiscated from circuses. “If the animals are falling sick quite often, then there is a management issue,” he acknowledged, and then added, “Money, that’s the major issue of management.”

But the problem runs deeper than that and starts with trapping that typically should not have happened in the first place, according to Vidya Athreya, a leopard biologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. The general public, and even wildlife managers themselves, she said, are still often surprised to realize that most Indian wildlife lives outside protected areas, in human-dominated landscapes. That’s especially true for leopards.

They have thrived in part because the land area under irrigation has greatly expanded over the past 50 years. That’s converted formerly arid, inhospitable landscapes into dense stands of sugar cane and other crops, providing new habitat and daytime hiding places for the leopards. By night, they come out to prey on wildlife and on the country’s large population of pigs, rats, and street dogs, which in turn are supported by open disposal of garbage and by laws against culling of unowned dogs.

Though the leopard population is officially estimated at around 12,000 animals, they are notoriously difficult to count. One wildlife biologist conjectured that the true number could be as high as 25,000 (but noted that this may still be far lower than India’s 19th-century leopard population).

Leopards that are injured, or weakened by age, sometimes resort to preying on livestock. Attacks on humans also occur with dismaying frequency. But people who are inexperienced with wildlife often regard just seeing a leopard in a human area as conflict, said Athreya. They call a local political leader or the Indian Forest Service to demand trapping. Phone videos posted on social media can help turn a brief sighting into a panic.

Wildlife managers often respond by setting out box traps and taking away any leopards they can catch. A national law forbids that kind of trapping without written permission from a relatively high-ranking government official, but the practical reality is that it’s a way to appease angry residents.

“Problem” tigers, and, just last month, a pride of Asiatic lions, can face the same fate, but captive populations are much smaller for those species. No one keeps track of the number of wild-caught animals of all species kept in captivity across India. In the past, wildlife managers quietly relocated trapped leopards to national parks or other areas as far as possible from the point of capture. But those leopards ended up stressed by the trauma of captivity and adrift in unfamiliar territory already occupied by other leopards. A devastating series of studies by Athreya linked the relocated leopards to attacks on humans and concluded that, in the absence of relocation, serious human-leopard conflict was uncommon. Trapping didn’t even improve the problem for the community where the trapping took place, because other leopards, generally younger and with less experience at negotiating human-dominated landscapes, quickly took over the newly vacated territory.

Athreya’s work has discouraged reliance on trapping in some areas, notably the city of Mumbai, a crowded metropolis of 21 million people, which nonetheless accommodates a free-ranging resident population of 35 leopards in and around its unfenced national park. “I used to get calls from people in apartment buildings saying, ‘I can see a leopard in the forest, please send someone to trap it,’” said Vikas Gupta, director of Sanjay Gandhi National Park there. Instead, the park, together with local conservation groups, now provides workshops with guidelines on safely coexisting with leopards. No attacks on humans have occurred in the city since 2013.

But trapping is still the standard response elsewhere. “The whole process is fueled by corruption,” said one wildlife biologist, who asked not to be named. “There is money in the steel cages. There is money in the trapping. These are all opportunities for skimming.” Another biologist encountered fierce resistance on pointing out that a captive leopard does not require 15 pounds of meat a day — and eventually surmised that the meat wasn’t all ending up on the leopard’s dinner plate.

The somewhat more optimistic news is that trapped leopards increasingly get set free again, after a day or two to inspect for sickness or injuries — if only because there is no room left to keep them in captivity . The policy is to release them back into the territory where they were caught, but according to Athreya, relocations, almost always conducted in secret, are still common.

A few rescue centers have also begun to build proper facilities for long-term warehousing of leopards. In the new $235,000 rescue center at Sanjay Gandhi National Park, for instance, each leopard, or pair of leopards, occupies a small night cage, but spends the day in an outdoor area about a third the size of an NBA basketball court, usually with a tree trunk to climb and other forms of enrichment. Even better, the facility operates below capacity, with just 17 leopards in 22 cages.

What’s still missing, said Athreya, is a coherent, science-based national policy for dealing with wildlife outside protected areas, which cover just five percent of the nation on paper (and more like three percent in reality). “In Mumbai, management was open enough to engage with science,” said Athreya, “and it was possible to sit together and work on a solution.” But that rarely happens elsewhere. That’s partly because the national government, especially under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has so far shown little interest in making scientists part of the decision-making process. But it’s also the fault, said Athreya, of scientists who are unwilling to engage with wildlife managers and ill-equipped by their training to deal with the complicated social, political, and economic issues surrounding wildlife.

Thus, decisions about wildlife continue to be made on the fly, without scientific input. Culling — or what a former environment minister has dubbed–a “lust for killing”— has recently become government policy in some states for elephants, macaque monkeys, wild boar, nilgai antelope, and even peacocks that happen to present a nuisance.

Decision-makers do not even rely on scientists to measure the effectiveness of different management strategies, whether it’s putting elephants on birth control, culling macaques, or locking up leopards and other species for life. Unless that haphazard management style changes, people and wildlife may ultimately cease to exist together outside protected areas — especially as India displaces China to become the most populous nation in the world by 2030.

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