While every tiger killed in the wild generates massive furore, no one sheds a tear for the hundreds of leopards that are brutally being eliminated from their habitat. Wildlife activist and big cat lover, Belinda Wright once told me that while tigers may see the light of the day, leopards could soon be staring at complete annihilation of their species. She revealed that more than 4,000 leopards have been killed in less than a decade and hardly anyone ever took notice of it.
These figures are official and do not reveal the gory side of the story. It is widely believed that the number could be much higher considering the increasing man-animal conflict and great demand for leopard skin. Even in the well protected tiger reserves across the country, where each and every tiger is monitored by the hour, survival and protection of leopards isn’t part of the mandate.
A forest official once told me, “Tourists want tigers. Tigers get revenues. No one comes to see a leopard.” Also, leopards concentrate more on human habitats for an easy kill and this has brought them in direct conflict with the locals. For them, leopard is a nuisance that feeds off them and needs to be eliminated. This bloody vendetta has put the animals’ survival at stake.
As a child, I was witness to this conflict in my village where people and the beast shared the same space. Surrounded by patches of dense forests, the village was right in the heart of the leopard territory. With no tigers around, the spotted cat ruled these forests with great ferocity and terror. Stories of the beast feasting on humans and cattle are part of the common folk lore.
Immensely superstitious, people of Garhwal in Uttarakhand have often confused man-eating leopards to evil spirits that devour human blood and flesh. Back in time, the fear of the beast compelled locals to build temples to please the gods. My village has two such temples: the Narsingh temple is dedicated to a half man, half leopard god; the Mata ka Mandir has a Durga riding a tiger. Every year, goats are sacrificed to appease the gods.
On several occasions, I have been at the heart of these man-eating sprees and sensed the uneasy calm that would descend on the village and its adjoining areas. A voluntary curfew would be in place as sun touched the western horizon. Doors and windows are firmly shut and no one would dare to step out. The ones who dared often ended on the leopards’ dinner table.
The nerve-wrecking story of a nine-year-old girl still gives me cold creeps. On one such man-eating leopard days, this girl continued to play in the open despite her mother’s warning. After several attempts, her mother cursed, “If you don’t come inside, leopard would eat you.” Halfway through the sentence, she saw the child being dragged away by a leopard. Before she could even react, the big cat disappeared into the dark of the night. No one dared to follow the blood trail and next day a search party could find pieces of her blood soaked clothes that were also used for performing her last rites.
The famous Jim Corbett book on the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag; who killed more than 150 people over 8 years is a legend. “That leopard killed at will,” a local told me at the very spot where the predator was shot dead by Corbett himself. The master hunter too was moved by the beauty of the animal and even rated him above the tiger in his memoirs.
But, these stories have become part of the legend and instances of man-eating leopards have gone down drastically in the past few years. Stray incidents of leopard killing cattle do happen, but the trends have witnessed a sharp drop. For every cattle killed, leopards sometimes do have to pay for their lives. Revenge killing by poisoning has long been adopted to silence the big cat.
These trends are not confined to my village and stories of leopards being exterminated relentlessly throughout the country is a cause of great concern. Seizures and intelligence inputs suggest a large nexus of poachers slaughtering these beautiful animals for their body parts in collusion with the locals.
At present, the situation is alarming and dwindling forests, extinct prey base have added to the animals’ misery. An ugly confrontation between the man and the animal threatens the very survival of the species. Poisoned, trapped and chased by the poachers, the leopards seek refuge in the forests that aren’t there. Blinded by tiger conservation, the government’s policy also has no place for the leopard.
The hunter has become the hunted. And if this hunting goes unabated, the leopard may go the cheetah way amidst rising tiger numbers.