Fear psychosis among villagers due to human-animal conflict has led to a surge in leopard captures in Nashik, said forest officials, adding that all captured big cats may not have been involved in the conflict.
The Maharashtra forest department caught a sub-adult female leopard from farmlands at Palse village in Nashik, early Tuesday morning. The animal was then transported to Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) on Wednesday. This is the third conflict-related capture within a month and 11th over eight months. Nashik forest officials said there are two more leopards in the area and plan to trap them both as early as possible.
Five deaths and five serious injuries (including two children) have been reported since December 2019 at the 12-km stretch along Darna river (between Sinnar and Eklahare) where leopard numbers have risen significantly. Apart from three leopards sent to SGNP, eight were captured and released at undisclosed locations (forest areas) between December and April before human deaths were reported.
The forest department on Wednesday said based on a report received from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, an adult male leopard was responsible for conflict cases. The report was based on swab samples of four of the five victims.
“While DNA reports matching those of the trapped leopards are yet to be received, the latest report states that a large male leopard was responsible for four deaths. We estimate that none of the leopards captured so far were involved in the conflict,” said Sunil Limaye, additional principal chief conservator of forest (wildlife-west).
On July 12 and July 2, a two-year-old male leopard and five-year-old female leopard were lured into trap cages at Chehedi village and Samangaon, and transported to SGNP.
“The sub-adult male does not exhibit extreme fierceness nor any traits that he may have been in conflict. It is now clear that the male leopard, dangerous to human life, is still at large and is one of the two leopards yet to be caught,” said Limaye adding that releasing captured animals at the moment in Nashik was risky. “There is a fear psychosis among villagers. Once we have caught the problem animal, immediate efforts will be made to rehabilitate the three captured leopards. We have ensured minimal human imprint during their temporary stay in captivity.”
Vivek Bhadane, range forest officer (RFO), Nashik said, “We are under tremendous pressure from local villagers. Any lapse in tracing the male leopard, which is yet to be captured, still poses a great threat to human safety. For this reason, capturing as many leopards and moving them to captivity, for the time being, is helping us trace the problem animal, and also acts as a temporary comfort for villagers.”
Over 200 dogs, close to 100 wild boars and cattle have been killed, said Bhadane adding, “An average of 25 dogs have been killed per month since December.”
Wildlife experts said Nashik had reached the worst-case scenario for human-animal conflict. “The only way forward is to have a targeted campaign and engage villagers to collectively address the issue of leopard presence in croplands. Nashik needs to have rapid response teams including villagers similar to how Junnar tackled this problem,” said Vidya Athreya, wildlife biologist.
Others said the forest department was not prepared for more conflict cases. “Without any proper census undertaken, the humongous rise in leopard numbers has not been documented in Nashik. Especially when the habitat of these animals has changed from dense forests to sugarcane farms. Even if they are being released back into forests, they are returning to farmlands regularly,” said Rohan Bhate, member, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau. “A detailed location-specific study needs to be undertaken before capture numbers rise to 10 per month.”
Nitin Kakodkar, principal chief conservator of forest (wildlife) said, “Leopards are using the sugarcane farms, adjacent to forest areas along Darna, as a safe zone. While hunting for dogs and other livestock, they are coming in close proximity to farmers. The department has already begun a conflict management exercise with locals and the situation is likely to improve soon.”
‘Capacity at SGNP leopard rescue centre almost full’
As leopard captures rise in Nashik, three hours away at SGNP, Borivli, the leopard rescue centre is reaching its capacity. The rescue centre currently has 15 leopards with the latest addition of three from Nashik. “We have three more cages left. With two more leopards planned to be captured soon, we would have only one additional cage. However, the three leopards recently brought to SGNP are only coming in close proximity to humans twice a day. Once when their cages are cleaned and when they are being fed. This is done to reduce human-imprint as much as possible. The issue is they get adapted to captivity very fast,” said Vijay Barabde, superintendent of safaris and range forest officer, SGNP.
Meanwhile, Bhadane said the leopard trapped on Tuesday was 1 to 1.5 years old. However, SGNP officials said the leopard was not more than eight months old. “Even the male leopard trapped on July 12 was said to be 2 years old but he is not more than 11 months. All three leopards are healthy,” said Barabde.