National Geographic : 2015 Dec
134 national geographic • december 2015 India may be the real test of survival in a crowded world—and perhaps a model for it— because leopards live there in large numbers, outside protected areas, and in astonishing proximity to people. Tolerance of leopards is also generally high, though India (and the Brit- ish hunter and author Jim Corbett) largely established the term “man-eating leopard” in our vocabulary. It’s a misnomer: Women and children are the usual victims when leopards attack; size makes men more challenging. Be- cause attacks often occur when people go into the brush to relieve themselves, men also gain an inadvertent survival advantage from being able to urinate while standing. In any case, attacks on humans are relatively rare. It is far easier to die in India from civiliza- tion than from wildness: Nationwide 381 people are killed every day in road accidents, 80 more on rail lines, and 24 by electrocution. But leop- ard killings get headlines, partly because they are uncommon and also because they touch something primitive in the human psyche. Late on a Saturday morning in May, in the Junnar countryside, 95 miles east of Mumbai, a government car pulled up at a prosperous- looking little farmhouse. The occasion was horrific and yet polite. On the large veranda in front, surrounded by a waist-high concrete wall and shaded by a metal roof, a crowd waited for the man from the forest department. Six days earlier, at about 10:30 on a Sunday night, a two-year-old named Sai Mandlik was kneeling on a bench on this veranda and run- ning a toy bus along the top of the wall. His grandmother relaxed on a daybed beside him. In the tall grass 20 or 30 yards away, a leopard spotted something: a head moving back and forth, not much larger than the bonnet ma- caques that are among its natural prey. It began to stalk. If he was lucky, the boy never saw the leopard that snatched him over the wall and carried him away through the fields. His grand- mother screamed. The rest of the family came pouring out into the night. They were too late. Now the tragedy was being reduced to ritu- al. The women sat silently on the floor at the far end of the porch. Local officials, old men in white Gandhi caps, sat in mid-porch, and at the other end of the porch, the father sat on the spot where his son had been taken, with male fami- ly and friends huddled around him. The forest official introduced himself (“I am also from a rural area; I am not somebody coming in from above”) and explained that he did not mean the compensation payment, about $12,300, as a substitute for their loss but as an acknowledg- ment from the government, which is respon- sible for the leopards. One of the local officials came to inspect the check, and they engaged in a cordial dance, with each of them saying the other should present it. The family made a few small requests, and the forest official said he would try to help, and then it was over. Four miles down the road there was another house to visit with much the same story. When such leopard attacks occur, they tend to come in terrifying waves. Sai Mandlik’s death was the third attack in the Junnar area in just over two weeks, and the second fatality. It’s a puzzle: Much of the time, even in Mum- bai, leopards and humans coexist peacefully. So why do sudden violent outbreaks occur in an area such as Junnar? The morning after the presentation at the Mandlik house Vidya Athreya, a biologist with the Wildlife Conserva- tion Society, sat beside a sugarcane field in the nearby town of Akole. On her laptop computer a map of the community was lit up in great tur- quoise splotches representing all the places she found leopards during her five-year study here, using camera traps and radio collars. In short, It’s a puzzle: Much of the time leopards and humans coexist peacefully. So why do sudden violent outbreaks occur in an area such as Junnar?