Struggle for survival

Struggle for survival

With dwindling forest cover, many places across Karnataka have been troubled by human-animal conflicts. Pavan Kumar H takes a look at the Sandur region, which recently saw a series of human-leopard encounters

For the last two months, around 20 forest guards, armed with sticks, a ‘locked’ gun and two tranquiliser guns, have been patrolling the forests of Sushilnagar in Sandur taluk of Ballari district in teams.

The men in uniform have been assigned the task of silencing a ‘bloodthirsty’ leopard, which has so far killed three humans and injured two. The number of cattle killed by this leopard is unknown. In the last two months, Sandur has seen one of the worst human-leopard conflicts. The teams are trying to tranquilise the big cat and translocate it to a safer habitation. “Killing is the last option we would consider,” says one of the forest officers.

Wildlife researchers feel that translocation is the best way forward. “What wrong has the leopard done to be killed,” questions Samad Kottur, a wildlife researcher, who has been leading conservation activities in the Sandur region for the last two decades. “Humans have encroached so deep into the forest that wild animals are left with no choice but stray into human habitats,” he says.

Sanjay Gubbi, noted wildlife biologist, recounts that 10 human-leopard encounters were reported from Sandur area between 2009 and November 2015. The most occurred in 2015 with seven encounters.

In 2015, the State has recorded over 15 incidents of leopard attacks on humans, with more than 35 people being injured. The Forest Department has gunned down two leopards, which had allegedly turned man-eaters. However, there is no official record on the number of leopards that were killed by villagers. Recently, a four-year-old male leopard, which had strayed into human habitat near Kampli in Ballari district, was mercilessly beaten to death by villagers for injuring four people.

Several leopards have fallen into the traps set by the forest guards in Sandur. These big cats were later translocated to another area within the forest region of Sandur, as they were not ‘man-eaters’. The department officials say that there are nearly 1,500 leopards roaming in the wild in Karnataka and of which, 30 to 40 leopards live in the forests of Sandur.

Restricted movement

According to officials, there is no spurt in the population of wild animals, including leopards, in the State. “Karnataka has been able to maintain its wildlife balance perfectly,” says Ravi Ralph, principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife). The Forest Department has been successful in arresting the poaching activities in the forests, he adds. “One thing we have to realise is that animals are not avenging us. They attack humans only when their life is at risk or when they are threatened,” Ravi explains.

“Human activities including agriculture and mining has thinned the forest area, augmenting human-animal conflicts.” Samad points at mining as one of the major reasons for the dwindling of forest area in Sandur. “The Sandur forests are like a small part of the Western Ghats. Its rich biodiversity was destroyed by intense mining activities,” he opines. Consequently, wild animals are forced to walk into the  human habitat searching for prey.

“The Sandur forest area has two chains of forested hills that run parallel to each other. The forests on the hills have been lost and degraded due to mining, and within the valley, there is proliferation of maize cultivation that has slowly eaten into the forests,” says Sanjay. “So forests, which are also leopard habitats, have been cleared from the top due to mining and from the bottom by agricultural activities. Leopards present in these areas are perhaps now restricted to mid levels.”

Highly adaptable

Another reason cited for human-leopard conflict is the poaching of prey base of these big cats. Constant hunting of four-horned antelope, wild pig, porcupine, civet, black-naped hare and other small and large wildlife species has resulted in shortage of food for leopards in the wild.

To our ‘disadvantage’, the leopards are highly adaptable and can sustain themselves on any prey. Cattle and dogs are easy catch for these animals and so they walk into human habitats. “As per the descriptions given by people who were attacked, it looks like these were accidental confrontations. It is also possible that the leopard attacked those who intervened when the animal was killing livestock.”

For instance, Shepherd Bharamalingappa, one of the three persons killed by the leopard, was killed when he tried to save his cattle from leopard attack. The ‘man-eater’ leopard had dragged his body near a bush some 50 metres from the accident spot. “It is better not to intervene when leopards or any large other carnivores are attacking livestock. Such confrontations could turn tragic for humans,” says Sanjay.

It was heart-warming to know that the villagers, who are affected by the leopard menace, still feel that translocation is a  better option than killing the big cat. All they want is the safety of people and cattle and the ‘terror’ is shifted to a safer place.

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