About a century ago the city of Bhopal was an extensive wild land spread in all directions, but within the last four decades, the township began eating into nature’s strong bastion that was once covered with forests and teemed with a variety of wild animals. The onslaught of development accelerated, and in the last fifteen years, the city has engulfed the remaining habitats bringing humans into a direct conflict with wild animals like leopards. The rapidly expanding concrete jungle fragmented and destroyed the homes of the native wild creatures.
Today, just a thin garland of forest surrounds the city. Though the human habitations and developmental infrastructures have fragmented this habitat at places, the wild animals, especially those who need larger home-ranges can still move throughout this garland taking advantages of the nalas, and riparian vegetation (all along the river banks). But these fragile corridors, too, are threatened by developers and builders, who have begun to encroach on these water courses – from some places, the Kaliasot river has already vanished under the maze of high-rise buildings and duplexes that have popped up like toadstools.
Ratapani sanctuary situated at the South-South-East corner of this vestigial forest and scrub is now an important breeding ground for tigers and therefore the young tigers have begun moving out towards forests of Sehore and Dewas and some of them have made Kathotiya–Kerwa forest their home.
With so many tigers already occupying the forests that provide sub-optimal habitats for the tiger outside Bhopal city, its younger brother – the leopard has no choice but to find refuge farther away from the tigers and in search of food and shelter, they often wander into the city fringe where people have already built their houses. Here, the leopards eke out sustenance by pilfering dogs and goats from slums and shanties and take shelter in the remaining patches of greenery preserved within the campuses of institutions like Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM) and Manav Sanghralaya (Museum of Man) that shares its boundary with Van Vihar national park. There was a time when these wandering leopards used to enter Van Vihar and once one of them had entered the compound of the Chief Minister’s bungalow close to Van Vihar. Van Vihar is now out-of-bounds for jackals and leopards from outside as fences and walls have been erected all around it.
This story concerns one such wandering leopard that was stupid enough to venture into the city limits just before the rains. Little did he know that the rain-god was about to unleash his fury on the city and all the routes that went back to the forest would be cut-off by the deluge. The newspapers had been reporting sightings of a leopard in IIFM campus, and the DFO had sent a team to investigate, but the team drew a blank as they could find no evidence of the leopard’s presence there.
It was an unusual year, the rain that usually stops by the end of August continued until late September. Both Kaliasot and Kerwa dams overflowed inundating large portions of low-lying lands beyond its full tank level (FTL).
It was around 11 PM on the night of 4 October 2012. I was about to sleep when my mobile rang. L. Krishnamoorthy, the local DFO was on the line. He seemed excited and worried as he narrated the incident. He said, “Sir, there is a slum outside the western boundary wall of IIFM just at the junction of the water body that connects Bada Talab with the Kaliasot reservoir. There, a leopard had injured a boy in the morning today; the injury was minor. Our rescue team had installed a cage near the slum in the afternoon, but in the evening at about 7.30 PM the leopard entered the slum again and attacked and injured two people. We immediately sent a team to the spot, but now our team is in serious trouble as sword-wielding slum-dwellers have surrounded them.” I asked him whether he had talked to the Collector and Superintendent of Police, he answered in affirmative. Then, I spoke with the CCF Bhopal; he informed me that the police had already reached the spot and the situation was under control. I called my boss, the Chief Wildlife Warden (CWLW) of Madhya Pradesh, and apprised him of the situation. In the morning I went to the slum. An excited crowd surrounded me, some with curiosity and some others with an agenda to show off their leadership skills.
The range officer took us to the room where the leopard had attacked the two persons. From the answers we could elicit after talking to the victims and local inhabitants, I reconstructed the scene that might have transpired the previous evening – as darkness fell, the animal had entered the slum probably in pursuit of a prey, most likely a stray dog, but someone accosted it and raised the alarm. Chased by a shouting crowd, the leopard dashed into an open door of a house to find a way to escape but ran into a wall at the other end. It turned back, saw a man sitting in the room and attacked him in self-defense as he tried to get up suddenly, injuring him in the head, and while trying to escape outside through the open door, it came face to face with another man. He bit the back portion of the man as he turned and started running to save his life. The leopard finally managed to vanish from the spot through the labyrinth of houses.
I then asked the staff to show me the trap cages they had deployed the previous evening and also asked them what they had done so far to ascertain the location of the leopard’s hideout. The staff had neither carried out a systematic search for the feline nor were the Pug Impression Pads (PIP) laid out at the most suitable places. They had laid only one trap cage unthinkingly just outside the slum and without even camouflaging it. Besides, information given by the locals about the sightings of the leopard was ignored or trivialized. The field team was loosely assembled without a leader.
I surveyed the adjacent areas and discussed the course of action with the staff. The first challenge was to ensure that the leopard didn’t get a chance to sneak into the slum again and the second was to find the resting place of the leopard. In the vicinity of this slum, there were three possible sites that the animal could use as hiding and resting places. The nearest one was the large forested campus of IIFM, the second one was a patch of a plantation on the other side of the bridge, and the third one was the campus of Manav Sanghralya, a little farther. We had a task to capture this unfortunate leopard that had probably entered the city before the rains had no choice but to stay back as all the safe routes to the jungle were under water.
Next morning, a contingent of officers consisting of the Principal Secretary Forests, the CWLW, APCCF Dharmendra Shukla, S.S. Rajpoot CCF Bhopal, L. Krishnamoorthy CF, Bhopal and I (the APCCF Wildlife Management) then visited the site to give assurance to the villagers that we would certainly catch the leopard and they should not panic. Dharmendra suggested sanitizing the slum periphery with tiger scat to deter the trouble maker leopard from venturing into the slum.
CF Bhopal was made In-charge of the rescue operation, and the Van Vihar rescue squad members were placed under his charge. The CF began working on the strategy discussed over those two days:
- Six trap cages were installed in the three suspected hideouts
- Some PIPs (Pugmark impression pads prepared on the forest roads and paths by spreading a layer of fine soil to record the footprints of animals) were made in the three sites and monitored regularly
- A team of locals and staff kept night vigil in the slum
- Posters and pamphlets, listing precautions to be taken and some phone numbers for reporting any sighting of the leopard or getting help in case of emergency, were distributed.
- To sanitize the slum against the leopard, tiger scat was collected from Van Vihar and a mixture of the scat and sawdust was spread around the periphery of the slum.
My inspection had revealed that the wall of the IIFM campus was in disrepair and was broken at several places. One such breach was just opposite the slum. I became sure that the leopard is using the IIFM forest as its temporary shelter. Nine days elapsed without any news of the leopard. He was positively starving.
On October 13, around 9.30 AM when I was with the CWLW and Les Carlisle, a wildlife expert from South Africa, inspecting the Boma erected at Van Vihar to capture chital, I got a call from a worried CCF Bhopal. He informed me that the leopard had chewed up the wire mesh of the bait-cage adjunct to the trap cage that they had set up in the IIFM forest. The leopard after making a hole in the bait cage had made away with the bait. He started blaming the Van Vihar rescue team for not being vigilant. At 10 AM he called me again, and this time he had some more to tell. He said that he had invited PM Laad, former CWLW and renowned wildlife expert, and after inspecting the trap cage, Laad sahib had opined that the bait was stolen by a human being and not by the leopard. I was extremely annoyed as I was not ready to accept this outlandish conclusion despite my high regards for Laad Sahib. I told the CCF that I would be at the site myself soon and would make my conclusion after inspecting the cage and its surrounds.
At around noon I visited the spot. The IIFM campus looks like a national park with woodland and grassland juxtaposed against each other and certainly for the leopard it was an ideal place to hide. The only problem was that despite the excellent cover the leopard would not find a wholesome meal there and would have to starve or survive on field mice, occasional frogs, and domestic dogs. Here, the staff had placed the cage at the edge of the forest and the grassland not far from the boundary wall and the main road. The wall opposite the site had a breach, and outside it, the rescue team waited in their vehicle every night. I inspected the cage and found that the rear portion of the cage was damaged from one side and the wire-mesh was chewed up to make an opening. The opening was merely around 5” x 12 ”. I wondered how a thief or the leopard could have pulled out a goat through this hole. It was like a Houdini act.
Just outside the opening, on the ground lay a small offal with some clotted blood on it. Beyond that spot, our search could not reveal any trace of blood on the ground or the grasses. The PIPs made by the staff were of no aid to me as those were already walked over by our agile staff several times, and all I could see were their shoeprints. Besides, the PIPs were made using too much sand that makes foot prints difficult to discern. The size of the bait’s spilled stomach had already made me suspicious, and I sensed that the bait kept inside the cage was small and supple. When I asked about the size of the goat, the range officer hesitated first; with much prodding, he blurted out that it was just a kid. I asked him why in god’s name he chose to put a very young goat as bait, he uttered – “Sir, I was told that the leopards prefer small prey.”
The trap-cage on the spot was one of the heaviest ones that Van Vihar rescue team has, and to my utter bewilderment, I found that while the leopard had frantically struggled to tear away the wire mesh of the cage its enormous strength had shifted the cage at least 3’ from its original position. This clue revealed that this was a large bodied leopard and indeed a male that was starving and desperate.
With all these evidences, I was in a position to visualize how the leopard had pulled out the bait through that small hole. The leopard killed the kid by a tight strike of its forepaw and then removed it by using both paws, in the process of being pulled out the belly ruptured, and the stomach spilled out on the ground. The leopard took the dead bait into its mouth and ran away into the grassland. As the bait was just a small morsel in the big mouth of a huge leopard, nothing spilled out on the ground, and therefore we did not find any blood or any drag marks in the soil.
I asked the range officer to accompany me as I decided to find a fresh trail of the leopard in the grassland and five minutes later, we found the freshest one. I instructed him to place the cage on this trail, camouflage it with grasses and put a full-size goat as bait. I assured him that he wouldn’t fail now as the hungry leopard was still famished as what he got last night was just a small morsel, besides it had gained the confidence of breaking open the cage and stealing the bait. Therefore, this time overconfidence and desperation would land the leopard into the trap.
At 6 Am, next morning, a jubilant range officer called me to report that the leopard was inside the cage. I asked him to shift it to Van Vihar, immediately, as within the next one hour, we would dispatch it to Satpura Tiger Reserve, before VIPs and Media sleuths got news of its capture and rushed to Van Vihar to further traumatize the poor leopard.
I reached Van Vihar at 7 AM and found the staff making preparations to transfer the leopard from the trap cage into the transportation cage. We soon shifted and loaded it onto the Rescue truck. The starved animal was now happily munching away the chunks of buffalo meat, dropped into the cage by the staff. The poor chap also got a brief shower and water to drink. At 7.30 AM it was on its way to a new home. The rescue team safely transported it on a barge across the Denwa river and released it into the rich habitat of Satpura. A mission accomplished without any mishap gives immense satisfaction to the team involved in it.
Photos: Suhas Kumar; featured image Van Vihar National Park
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