Will leopard go the lion way?

The fear about the danger of leopards to human life is a cause of concern for the future of 
this wild cat, says Lieut-Gen Baljit Singh (retd)

THE worth of a civilisation is judged by the manner it treats its animals," said Mahatma Gandhi. We do not know the nature of neglect and the magnitude of cruelty inflicted on animals, which the Mahatma witnessed to have made that anguished and at the same time the most compassionate statement in defence of the animals of India. Sadly, even 60 years later, there is little evidence to suggest that we Indians have developed better empathy with our animal world today.

Take for instance, the three leopards (one a mere two months old cub), needlessly done to death through public frenzy recently and followed by the leopard fear psychosis drummed up in several towns of Himachal Pradesh.

The misconceived notion of a leopard surfeit in India is patently borne out of ignorance. Of our three larger cats, namely the lion, the tiger and the leopard, the latter had emerged with the widest distribution in the country. For, the leopard alone is able to live and thrive almost anywhere, which accounts for its presence all across the sub-continent, except for the Thar desert and beyond the tree line in the Himalayas.

The leopard, as indeed the lion and the tiger, all immigrated from the North, entering India from the two flanks of the Himalayas, ages ago. The leopard is believed to have preceded the other two cats. This theory is supported by its having colonised up to the southernmost tip of our land, which ultimately got detached and became the island state of Sri Lanka, complete with leopards. The lion and the tiger evidently arrived in India after that geological event, which also explains their absence from that island.

Over time, while the lion got almost wiped out and the tiger, too, came under severe hunting pressure, the leopard managed to fare better. In the light of this historical backdrop, it becomes easier to understand why today the leopard exceeds the lion population manifolds and that of the tiger by a factor of at least five.

No matter how numerous the leopard may be but man has little to fear from them. Lt-Col A. H. E. Mosse (1864-1929, the Indian Army), who is considered an authority on the leopard in India, had summed up his lifetimeís experience thus: "Generally speaking, it may be laid down as an axiom that neither tiger nor panther will ever, unprovoked, attack mankind. It is the jungle law, by virtue of the respect for and dread of man in which all the jungle creatures are brought up."

Lt-Co1 R.G. Burton (1868-1963), also of the Indian Army, who was a dedicated wildlife conservationist and is credited with the creation of the Indian Board for Wildlife in 1954, had said, "Leopards are timid and, retiring, and, no doubt, conceal themselves on the approach of a human being.... I have known of a man who was lying asleep in the open in daylight, wrapped up in a black blanket. It (leopard), perhaps, mistook him for a goat but dropped him as soon as he (man) cried out.... I have myself nearly trodden on a panther. I was going down a hill covered with sparse jungle when I smelt the animal and looking down, saw it lying under a bush at my feet. It rose and walked over the slope into denser thicket...."

Nevertheless, just as it would be suicidal for a man to walk across a six-lane Expressway, so it would be unwise to invite a leopardís wrath either through wanton provocation or by interfering when he is closing upon his prey.

The two most favoured of the leopardís prey are the langoor and the dog. As one or both of these prey animals, depending on the locality, could well be commensals of man, observance of a few basic precautions would help in avoiding the man-leopard conflict.

To minimise chances of domesticated dogs falling prey to the leopard, the pets must be kept indoors from sundown until sunrise as a firm rule. Where the stray dogs are concerned, allow the leopard to operate freely as manís willing servitor to keep the numbers of strays in check, which task he will perform far more efficiently than any municipal body ever will.

The langoors and the leopard on the other hand have a hate-hate relationship. In the natural way, langoors will browse on tender leaves atop the tallest of the jungle trees. Gifted with sharp vision and uncanny sense of smell, the langoors pick up movement and presence of tiger and leopard well in time and instantly warn all the jungle folk of the stalking danger. Finally, let us live and let live. And never forget the sage advice offered by the Red Indian, Chief Seattle, to President Franklin Pearse of the USA in the 1850s: "what is man without the beasts? Once the beasts are gone, man will surely die from a great loneliness of the spirit."