GUWAHATI, March 30 � A high incidence of leopards straying into the city�s residential areas in search of prey or driven by space constraint has emerged as a disturbing phenomenon.
The resultant man-leopard conflict, too, has taken a turn for the worse in the past few years. While there have been cases of leopards attacking people, actually it is leopards that have borne the brunt of the conflict, with a number of animals killed by mobs and dozens captured by the Forest Department.
Conservationists and foresters alike feel that Guwahati � once a stronghold of the spotted big cat � is no longer a safe zone for the animal and given the present trend, it is only a matter of time before it vanishes altogether from the city landscape.
�There has definitely been a sharp rise in the number of straying leopards and the consequent conflict with humans. We have captured eight-ten leopards so far this year. In fact, we captured four in the past one month,� Chandan Bora, DFO, Assam State Zoo, told The Assam Tribune.
Bora added that the presence of a large crowd often hampers efforts to tranquilise a straying leopard after it lands in a human habitation. �Leopards stray into residential areas looking for prey like dogs, poultry and goats, and rarely attack humans unless provoked. Guwahati used to have a large leopard population but at the present rate of killing and capturing, we will be left with very few leopards,� he said, adding that several of the captured leopards were found in an injured condition following attacks by crowds.
Dr Bibhab Talukdar, chief of conservation group Aaranyak, feels that time is fast running out for the beleaguered leopard in Guwahati, as the metropolis was caught in the grip of unplanned expansion that cared little for the sanctity of its sylvan landscape, including the reserve forests on the hills.
�The way things are going, the leopard is set for extinction in the city. There has been large-scale destruction of wildlife habitat due to unplanned expansion and widespread encroachment on forestland. The simple fact is that leopards have nowhere to go either for food or for space. Unless the remaining forests are strictly preserved, Guwahati will part with all its wildlife, not just leopards,� Dr Talukdar said.
With the government authorities looking the other way, the once-dense forest cover in the city hills is fast getting replaced by human settlements. Matters have worsened in the past few years with various organizations clamouring for settlement on the forested hills.
Conservationists believe that the recent movement for granting of land patta (settlement rights) and the government�s favourable response was leading to more pressure on the hills. Matters have been complicated by the stiff � and even armed � public resistance to eviction drives, with the political parties and different influential organizations lending their weight behind the encroachers.
It also exposes the absence of an effective response mechanism on the part of the Forest Department to rescue wildlife in distress.
�The Forest Department has so far failed to put in place a rapid action force to rescue wildlife in distress. All the hills in the city, barring one, have leopard populations, and it is the responsibility of the department and the administration to prevent human interference in these areas. Leopards usually give birth and rear their cubs under the cover of large boulders but recent construction and quarrying activities are causing a great disturbance to the animals,� Moloy Baruah of Early Birds said.
Baruah added that as long-term measures, there is no alternative but to protect the forested hills from further destruction and also to clear the encroached forests at the earliest.
Acknowledging the need to have a rapid response mechanism, a forest official said that while anti-depredation units are already there in each wildlife division, their functioning is marred by manpower and logistics constraints.
Large-scale encroachment apart, the city hills have also witnessed widespread illegal logging and earth-cutting despite there being a ban on both. Conservationists believe that at this rate, the hills will soon become bereft of any forest cover worth the name.
�Encroachment on the reserve forests located in the hills has worsened in the last decade, to the extent that very little remains of what was once a vast expanse of jungle sheltering diverse wildlife, the leopard being a most common resident,� the forest official said.
While no official up-to-date data is available, according to an official estimate dating back to several years, the total forest cover in the hills was a meagre 13.60 per cent. Today it is bound to be far less � given the ongoing encroachment, illegal logging and earth-cutting on the hills. Of the 7,023 hectares of hill land, 2,642 hectares fall under reserve forests but a major part of even the reserve forests lies destroyed and degraded due to encroachment and tree-felling.