National Geographic : 2015 Dec
out of the shadows 139 the trauma of being caught in a box trap, han- dled by humans, and dumped in an unfamiliar landscape and in territories already occupied by other leopards. The outbreak of attacks wasn’t, after all, a result of the leopards’ innate feroc- ity, according to Athreya and her co-authors: “Translocation induced attacks on people.” Forest department managers generally got the message when Athreya first presented her research a decade ago. Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai stopped allowing itself to be used as a dumping ground for relocated leop- ards. (Like Junnar, it was also experiencing an outbreak of deadly attacks.) The city’s media took up the idea that relocations were more dangerous than the leopards. Workshops for apartment dwellers around the park, and for residents of slums inside the park borders, be- gan to promulgate the larger idea that merely seeing a leopard in the neighborhood does not constitute “conflict.” Removing leopards—the first thing city dwellers often demand—disrupts the social system and opens the territory for new leopards that may be less experienced at the tricky business of “mutual accommodation.” The workshops also emphasized the human side of mutual accommodation, including basic pre- cautions like keeping children indoors at night. (Larger public health measures would also help, including garbage removal, provision of toilets, and removal of street dogs, but economic and political factors often put them out of reach.) The abiding message was that leopards in Mum- bai, Akole, and other areas are not “strays” or “intruders.” They are fellow residents. Living by these ideas has not, however, always been easy. This is especially so for forest depart- ment rangers who show up in the aftermath of a leopard attack, and find themselves besieged and even beaten by enraged residents demand- ing action. They also come under pressure from local politicians. So the traps still come out, to give people the illusion of something being done, of safety, even if the actual result is to in- crease their danger. A few “problem” leopards end up being warehoused at crowded “rescue” facilities around the country, though there is in fact no way to identify a problem animal, short of catching it with its victim. A scapegoat will do. Thus soon after the latest killings in Junnar, a forest ranger there emailed me: “Glad to in- form you that we trapped a male leopard.” He identified it flatly as “the same leopard which attacked a boy last month.” It would spend the rest of its life at a “leopard rescue” facility in Junnar, which was already close to capacity, with 28 leopards. Most of the other leopards be- ing caught in traps inevitably would be released, though for obvious reasons the forest depart- ment would not disclose how many leopards it was releasing in Junnar, or where. Two weeks after that, another leopard killed and dismem- bered a 60-year-old woman at a farm a few miles from where Sai Mandlik died. I left India thinking that what I had seen of leopards there was a messy, difficult business, far removed from the way people live in more developed countries. Then I arrived home to an unverified report of a mountain lion four miles from my home on the Connecticut coast, followed by news of a black bear in the nearby city of New Haven. Mountain lions now roam through Los Angeles, coyotes in Chicago, wolves on the outskirts of Rome, great white sharks off Cape Cod. As human populations expand and we make the Earth more urban, other carni- vores also seem to be adapting and learning to hang on in our midst. This can be unnerving, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing: Studies have repeatedly shown that healthy predator pop- ulations are essential to the health of almost everything else. If they are not gods, they are at least the great drivers of ecosystems. Gradually, the Indian experience of leopards began to seem less like an otherworldly excep- tion and more like a foreshadowing of how all of us may soon be learning to live. j n National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative is dedicated to halting the decline of wild felines around the world. Learn more at causeanuproar.org. Nat Geo WILD’s week of exotic felines premieres on November 27 with Cougars Undercover at 9 p.m . ET.