Survey revives hopes for leopards in Guwahati
A Gauhati University survey notes that even though many leopards have lost their natural habitat due to haphazard expansion of Guwahati, a significant number is still present in the city’s forest cover
Ratna Bharali Talukdar
Haphazard growth and large-scale encroachment of forest areas in and around Assam’s first city Guwahati have hounded out as many as 47 common leopards from their original habitat over the past 17 years.
Environment experts have already sounded the alarm about a possible extinction of the animal from the forest covers of the city if frequent human–leopard conflicts push them to the congested confines of the Assam State Zoo, where the recued leopards are kept, and where many of them die an untimely death due to multiple reasons.
Amidst the gloom,a fresh hope of survival of the leopards of the city have surfaced with a recent survey bringing to light that a significant leopard population is still present in the city’s forest cover.
The survey, titled “Leopard and its Prey Base”, conducted by a group of students pursuing post-graduation in Animal Ecology and Wildlife Biology under the Department of Zoology of Gauhati University, has counted 16 leopards. According to Mridul Bora, a student pursuing the course and associated with the survey as part of a dissertation, the presence of the leopards has been marked by the sigma scan pro method.
The survey has come up at a time when the Department of Environment and Forests has failed either to conduct a study aiming at saving the ecology of this unique predator or take steps to minimize the rising human-leopard conflicts in the city. As per the records of the Assam State Zoo, between 1998 and 2015 (till this October 16), the Zoo authorities have rescued 59 leopards from different parts of the State, of which 47 were rescued from various pockets of Guwahati alone.
“Whenever there is a report of human-leopard conflict, a team of experts from the Assam State Zoo, along with the forest officials, rush to the place to rescue the animal,” says Dr. B. Kakati, the veterinary officer of the Zoo.
Mridul says the project primarily aims at educating citizens about the ecology of the leopard to save the species and its original habitat. To achieve it, the team has already organised a series of awareness camps among student groups, women and elected representatives in areas that have experienced frequent human–leopard conflict. The core team is also collaborating with local administration to manage mobs or crowd gathering during human-leopard conflicts. Volunteer response teams have also been formed involving local people.
The team members include Radhika Bhagat, Professor Jatin Kalita and Professor Prasanta Kumar Saikia of Gauhati University, Abijit Das and Dilip Chetry. The core group members, which has only students, includes Shah Nawaz Jelil, Bibekananda Kakoti, Kuldeep Dutta, Srimanta Hazarika, Murchana Parasar and Awarlin Chetia besides Mridul.
The project, which officially started in March this year, “chose Pandu for the initial work as it is an area where leopard sighting is common but conflict is less in comparison to other areas of the city because of the residents’ respect for the predator,” says Mridul. The survey results, finalised during August this year, has also inspired him to be associated with Wildlife Trust of India and David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation’s project titled ‘Human leopard conflict mitigation through community participation in Guwahati metro’ as a coordinator.
Interestingly, the students’ survey has shown that stray dogs have been the main prey base of the leopards. An average of 20 stray dogs per kilometer is found in the city, says Mridul. Leopards, he highlights, prefer to live in the shared habitat of forest land near human habitation, get about 78 percent of their prey from the wild environment and depend on human habitats for the rest.
Though stray dogs form a major prey base for the animal, there has been not a single incident of leopard attacking a pet in the city.
Drying up of their water source during winter too has made leopards come down to nearby human habitats in search of it, the reason why there are more cases of reporting of incidents of human-leopard conflicts during winter.
“It is important to understand the ecology of leopard, which is a territorial animal and live in contiguous habitat. Extinction of leopards from these forest cover would create serious problem in prey and predator relationships such as increasing and uncontrolled growth of other species, like the fox or wild dogs,” he states.
Although the Zoo authorities often rescue the leopards, they fail most times in keeping the animal alive. An analysis of five years of data culled from the Zoo records reveals that only 50 per cent of these rescued leopards survived after being rescued.
In 2015 (till this past October 16), two out of four rescued leopards have died in the Guwahati Zoo. In 2014, altogether 11 leopards including three sub-adults were rescued from different leopard-human conflict zones of the city. Five of these rescued leopards later died. In 2013, three sub-adults were rescued of which one died. The 2012 data shows that two of the four rescued leopards died too. In 2011, a ten-day-old female leopard died 10 days after it was rescued.
The Zoo authorities have recorded causes of death of these leopards as septicemia, tuberculosis, pneumonia, infant mortality, cardio respiratory failure, traumatic injury and stress among others. In 2014, out of the five leopard deaths, four were recorded due to ‘traumatic injury’ and another due to ‘emphysema disease’.
A leopard, which finds itself in a human-animal conflict, sustains trauma when it is suddenly surrounded by a huge crowd. Even after rescue, the traumatised leopard often sustains critical injury after being caged, when it hits the cage rods with its head in a bid to escape and sometimes results in untimely death because of it.
During this period (1998 to 2015), one person died in 2012 due to human-leopard conflict.
Since there is a paucity of space at the Guwahati Zoo, the authorities have also tried releasing some leopards into the forests. So far, it has successfully released 11 leopards in different forests including Pobitara Wildlife Sanctuary (1), Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary (2), Manas National Park (4) and Garbhanga Reserve Forest (4) besides transporting another seven to different zoological parks and botanical Gardens of the country. The Assam State Zoo has 15 leopards at present.
Guwahati has ten reserve forests in an around the city area sheltering a wide range of wildlife species. These reserve forests include South Kalapahar (70 hectare), Fatasil (670 hectare), Jalukbari (97.70 hectare), Gotanagar, Maligaon (175 hectare), Hengerabari (628 hectare), Sarania (7.99 hectare), Garhbhanga (18,860.58 hectare), Rani (4,370 hectare) Amsang (7,864 hectare) and DeeporBeel, which is a large natural water body with a forest cover of 4.14 sq km. Amsang was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 2004.
With haphazard expansion of the city, most of these forests, once considered the ‘green lung’ of the city, have been degraded, posing a serious threat to the survival of many wild species.
This has led to increased incidents of human-leopard conflicts. Till now, 10 leopards have been rescued from Maligaon, 6 from Kahilipara, four from Fatasil4 from Birubari beside some from areas like Santipur, Udalbakra, Silpukhuri, Lokhora, Kamakhya and Jalukdbari besides Pandu where forests areas have almost been completely encroached. Compared to other areas, Garhbhanga, Rani, Amsang and Deepor Beel forests are still considered safe for the predator.