I toured Chandor and the surrounding areas a few days ago without revealing my identity…not in search of secondary evidence of the presence of leopards which includes scats, animal lifting incidences, etc but to ascertain facts about the awareness that exists amongst the residents of this area of the Indian leopard,(Panthera pardus) , and came back stunned and disturbed to say the least.
To most the leopards that were sighted were a nuisance that needed to be silenced and thought it was the duty of either the Forest Dept or the Police Dept to do so, while to some, it was a matter of time when they would themselves do the needful as one local resident put it. A small minority, especially the youth, however agreed that the animals needed to be relocated as has been done in the past in some parts of Goa, and well, no body that I met, concurred that the Indian leopard has conventionally been a species of fringe forests not only in the state but also our country at that and should continue to share the greater landscape with humans.
I know my opinion that we have to share our landscape with “fierce” predators like the Indian leopard would be met with strong resistance from many a Goan voice, but let us accept this fact- leopards have been and are still a part of our landscapes all across the hinterlands and trapping and relocating them would only aggravate the problem rather than solving it as far as sound wildlife science norms are concerned. We need to realize that loss of prey species coupled with shrinkage of corridors and forest habitats leaves little choice for this master of adaptation to resort to eking out an existence on livestock- and as areas get opened sightings increase causing panic amongst the people at large.
Today it is Chandor, tomorrow it will be Bicholim and Pernem, Ponda and parts of Sattari too. As researchers we know that these areas have sizeable populations of leopards that inhabit disturbed forests. We know and have been repeatedly ascertaining that conflict situations in areas like these can be the order of the day and the Government needs to take steps to consult experts dealing with human-leopard conflict issues before it is too late. We also know that the Indian leopard is now a Schedule 1 animal under the Wildlife Protection act and is an endangered mammal in the country. Every year leopard numbers are dwindling throughout the country due to which it has recently been included in the IUCN Red Data category as a Near Threatened species. While the actual numbers are not available, rough estimates by conservationists peg them at between 7,000- 15,000 in the country. In Goa, the magic figure varies from 21-41 but in my personal opinion, these are all estimates and there needs to be a proper census count which documents actual numbers not only in every Protected Forest but even outside protected areas. This is essential to understand the biology of the animals and their preference for local forest habitat amongst other aspects, and would provide wildlife personnel enough details to plan strategies to reduce the conflicts if not stop them.
I realized that the people at large need to be made to understand too that that haphazard trapping any leopard in conflict areas is not going to solve the problem and would in fact backfire as vacant territories will be taken over by the floater population of leopards. This would increase the conflict solutions rather than solving it. That the media has a vital role to play here in educating the public about the way to deal with conflict situations like these in coordination with the Forest Department ahs long been the need of the hour and has not even been attempted till date. And cant the Information and Publicity department of the Government come out with a series of posters on man- animal conflicts including leopards, elephants, monkeys and snakes, etc and educate the public of the causes, the precautions to be taken and the authorities to be contacted, etc to address this issue. Or is it that all and sundry are merely interested in waiting and watching the image of a majestic animal get tarnished as a nuisance just because some individual leopard sightings?
Yes, not all leopards are problem animals. Identification and scientific monitoring is the need of the hour at a local level as well as at the State level, which brings us to another issue- that a team of national wildlife experts and researchers needs to be urgently formed to address the issue for human animal conflicts in the state for providing technical, ecological and logical long term solutions for man-leopard conflicts.
It is high time fellow Goans that we as citizens understand that disturbance to habitats, especially forests would give rise a myriad of conflict issues of which this the human leopard conflict is an example and the need of the hour is to help conserve this large cat by applying sound principles of science and experiences of the past to reach to a solution. Silencing an individual leopard or in simple terms killing it as someone put it would never solve the problem…it would be a crime.