Child lifting leopard shot dead in Chamoli : are environmentalists wrong?

Big cats have always been part of Uttarakhand’s consciousness. In ‘Leopard of Rudraprayag‘ and ‘Man-eaters of Kumaon‘ written by Jim Corbett, we encounter tigers and leopards who killed hundreds of humans and were finally shot down. The child-lifting leopard of Chamoli shot dead recently in the same league.

The leopards have also entered the cultural conscious of Uttarakhandis. We have made songs on the man-eating tigers, that have become super hits.

Recent incidents of Leopard preying on children

Incident 1

On 29th of May, 2020, around 8 PM in the evening, a 5 year old child was playing in the courtyard of his home at Mangethi village near Maltura of Narayanbagad block of Chamoli district. The leopard caught hold of him and disappeared. After much effort, when the dead body was found, the parents of the child fainted. The Leopard had consumed all the flesh from the child’s body!

Incident 2

On 29th of June, 2020, around 7 PM, 11 years old Drishtika was snatched by Leopard from near her house in Gairbaram in Chamoli. The beast had eaten half of her flesh, before the body could be found.

Incident 3

On 7th of July, 2020 around 5 PM, Hema Mehra was feeding her 2 year old son Harshit in the courtyard. This was in the Petshal village of Almora, also famous for its prehistoric rock paintings. Leopard snatched the child from the lap of his mother. The dead body was found about 300 meters from the house.

Child lifting leopard of Chamoli shot dead

On 11th of July, the Leopard thought to be involved in incidents 1 and 2 was shot down after efforts of 10 days. It was finally shot dead by hunter Joy Hukkil when it revisited Gairbaram village, just 100 metres away from its second kill.

child lifting leopard

A team of professional hunters including Joy Hukkil and Lakhpat Rai was enraged in the operation. It is to be noted that both these hunters have killed dozens of man-eater leopards.

The leopard in Almora is yet free. Every month, there are many such incidents of conflicts between Leopards and humans in hills of Uttarakhand.

The absurdity of activists’ view on child lifting leopards

Leopards can run more than 60 kilometres per hour (37 mph), leap more than 6 metres (20 ft) horizontally and 3 metres (9.8 ft) vertically, and have a more developed sense of smell than tigers. They are strong climbers and can descend down a tree headfirst. All these characteristics make them quite dangerous. The environmental activists maintain that such conflicts are a result of :-

  • Increasing population of humans who settle in forest areas
  • Farmlands being expanded in forest areas.
  • Lack of prey for leopards in forests due to human activities.
  • Shrinking habitats of leopards due to developmental activities.

However, all these usual reasons expose the intellectual laziness of the activists and shows their disconnect from ground realities. The reality is:-

  • That Uttarakhand’s hill areas see very little population growth. In districts like Almora, it is negative.
  • The population density in hill areas of Uttarakhand is quite low and forest areas are quite extensive.
  • The agricultural land in Uttarakhand is continuously decreasing and since state formation, farm land has shrunk by about 25000 hectares. This is 250 sq kms. Some part of it, in plains, is used by industry. But most part is in hills, where there are no industries. It has simply been abandoned due to difficult conditions for farming.
  • Forest cover has actually increased in last two reports prepared by Forest Survey of India. Although, it has decreased in areas like Haridwar and Udham Singh Nagar, in the hill districts the forest cover has improved.
population stats of Uttarakhand districts
Population of Uttarakhand – district wise.

Thus the arguments of activists are just a way to block developmental activities in the region. But, the question remains. Why do the leopard attacks happen, if everything is great?

  • We must remember that such attacks happened even 100 years ago. Jim Corbett writes about leopards who killed 100s of people, for example ‘leopard of Rudraprayag’. There was no development in the hills, even roads, at that time. So saying that development of infrastructure leads to leopard attack is ignoring the nature of leopards.
  • Leopards, or any big cats, seek easy prey when they grow old, are injured or pregnant etc. Such conditions affect their mobility and they are not able to catch swift prey of forest. In that case, they start preying on domestic animals like dogs, goats and even humans.
  • Once a Leopard acquires taste for human flesh, it develops a preference for it. It might exclusively prefer humans. It is to be noted that Leopard of Panar killed 400+ people. The Leopard of Rudraprayag once broke into a pen holding 40 goats, but instead of attacking the livestock it killed and ate the sleeping 14-year-old boy who had been assigned to guard them!
  • Leopard habitat is more wider than tigers. It does not exclusively live in forests, but also lives in farms. Thus it is more likely to attack humans, specially in summers when drought like conditions can develop and in snowy winters when prey is scarce.
  • The growth of forest areas near villages due to abandoned fields gives it an ideal hiding place.

Conclusion

As of now, there is no way to deal with such a child lifting leopard. The relocation is costly and majority of leopards die during it. Most return to their original habitat eventually.

The High Court of Uttarakhand ordered stopping of hunting ‘man eater’ leopards. The Supreme Court overturned this order. Sadly, as of now, killing the ‘man eaters’ is the only solution.

However, the narrative around why leopards attack humans should change first, to find successful ways to deal with the problem. With wrong narrative about causes, we are likely to make wrong choices which will help neither humans, nor leopards.

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Pawan
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