The presence of an eight-year-old male leopard in the premises of Vibgyor High in Marathahalli last week triggered widespread panic in the area. Other schools in the nearby areas of Kundanahalli, Varthur and Whitefield too were not spared the fright.
Wildlife enthusiasts and forest department officials are, however, counselling students, parents and locals to rid them of the anxiety.
They say that the way forward is to create awareness about animal behaviour and point out that leopards, in particular, are shy by nature and avoid people.
Most parents, whose wards study in schools located around the area, say schools must create awareness among the various stakeholders on how to respond to such man-animal conflict situations rather than shut the school premises which creates more fear.
Vrinda Neeshath, a project manager with a private firm, has her son studying in Ryan International School in Kundanahalli. She points out that her son’s school was closed for a day following the incident. “Instead of closing the school, the authorities should have spoken to the students during the morning assembly and assured them that there’s no need to panic. Shutting the premises creates more fear,” she says. She also observes that some schools in the area have put up barbed wires around the school compound wall, which, she feels, is a good move.
PSN Raju, whose eight-year-old child is studying at Vibgyor High, says he was happy with the way the school handled the whole issue. But he says it is important for both parents and the school authorities to speak to children about these issues and educate them about the incident and why it happened. “Children must not be allowed to panic and get scared.
They must be given a proper understanding of the situation,” he adds. A few wildlife enthusiasts have grouped themselves into small teams and have been going around a few schools in Bengaluru. The volunteers, under the banner of ‘A Rocha’, have joined hands with the Forest Department and initiated an awareness drive in the area, focusing on local residents, village communities, teachers and students who are an integral part of such proposed landscapes. Sagarika Phalke, a volunteer and programme officer of this campaign, observes, “We often fear what we don’t know and the concern of Bengalureans, who have not seen a big cat in their midst, is understandable. However, Bengaluru still has lot of green spaces and is close to many viable leopard habitats which hold the possibility for future human-leopard interfaces. We have been going to schools across the City and interacting with local residents to sensitise them on this issue."
Another young volunteer, Avinash Krishnan, points out that the leopard straying into the City has unleashed a fear psychosis of sorts among people. “Exaggerating the problem causes panic and undermines conservation efforts. The recent incident is an indication of the paucity of research on human-animal conflict resolution,” he says.
Echoing Avinash’s views, K Ullas Karanth, director for Science-Asia Wildlife Conservation Society, says that in the last 30 years, there has been a regulation on the hunting of leopards. Also, there is a huge increase in the number of feral dogs, which are food for the leopards. These factors have contributed to the increase in the leopard population.
“There is a leopard reproducing population amidst the human settlements in rural areas of Karnataka, outside the protected areas, that extend to over 80,000 sq km. These leopards are not ‘straying’ from some far away forests. They live right around us, quietly and harmlessly, for the most part. They do not hunt people down, they attack only when cornered like the one in the school compound did,” he reasons. He believes that education and awareness of the situation is the way forward.
The officials with the Forest Department have been working to contain the fear among the people. Dipika Bajpai, Deputy Conservator of Forest (Bengaluru Urban), says she hopes to create awareness and educate people on how to coexist with animals. “It is not normal for a leopard or any other animal to intrude into human settlements every other day but when such incidents happen, people must learn to deal with it rather than panic,” reasons Dipika. She is working towards creating watch and ward groups in each area who will act as the first response team when a similar situation arises again. “We will also hold awareness programmes and send out materials to people on the dos and don’ts in such a situation and how to co-exist peacefully with animals,” adds Dipika.