The cat sprinted for about a minute and then paused at a clearing in the cane. When Ramdas Matale reached the spot, he found his blood-covered daughter beside an adult leopard. Matale lunged at the animal with a sickle, but before he could strike, it abandoned its prey and fled into a dense wall of cane. Samruddhi was lucky. Leopard attacks on humans in this part of India are rare, but instances of children escaping alive are even rarer. A frenzied motorcycle ride to the hospital in the next village, 18 stitches, and dozens of injections later, the girl was stable.
When I met her at her home in Belha village last month, the only sign of the attack were four fingernail-sized scars. Forest department officials responded to the incident by setting up two spring-loaded cages baited with chickens. No animals were snared in the trap, says local forest guard Renuka Sonattake. It could be that the leopard was lured into a similar cage in the past and has learnt from the experience, local forest officials and ecologists say.
People in the valleys of Maharashtra adjoining the Western Ghat mountain range have witnessed an unusually brutal spate of attacks in the last decade. Wild animals have killed people in the state since , according to data from the forest department. The conflicts suggest that leopards in India are thriving, venturing beyond the boundaries of protected forests and becoming fixtures in villages.
Forest officials are struggling to deal with the conflicts even as new research is suggesting that the most common remedial method—translocation—may only make matters worse. The girl belonged to a family of nomadic goat-herders who move from village to village, living in tents made of bamboo and tarp in fields along the way.
On the fateful night, a leopard snuck in, grabbed the girl from where she lay sleeping, and dragged her away before the family could react. Villagers found her partially eaten body the next morning.
An adult female leopard walked into the trap the following night. Officials analyzed her scat and found human DNA—an indication that the caged cat may be a man-eater. Dragging a sleeping child out of her bed is highly unusual, she says. The air is heavy with the distinct odor of leopard urine and feces. As she rounds a corner and looks into one of the enclosures, an adult leopard roars loudly and lunges at her, striking the frame with a force that rattles the entire cage.
The state has two zoo-like centers meant to house captured leopards, and both are filled to capacity, so this female cat cannot be moved elsewhere. Athreya points to pugmarks—pawprints—on the ground leading from the cage down a gentle slope to a manmade lake hundred feet away.
For the past eight years, she has set up camera traps, fitted GPS collars on cats, analyzed thousands of scat samples, and interviewed scores of villagers to better understand how these cats live and thrive outside protected areas. No one actually surveys leopards in India, so it is unclear how many there are.
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While leopards in villages are not unusual—there are even temples dedicated to tiger and leopard gods called waghobas—people say the spike in leopard attacks on humans is a relatively new phenomenon. It was in that villagers living near Junnar, a town about kilometers east of Mumbai, noticed they had a serious problem with man-eaters. Over the next three years, the cats killed an average 17 people each year, more than four times the average in the preceding eight years.
Half of the victims were children under Athreya, who did her graduate work at the University of Iowa studying strangler figs in tropical forests, found herself in Junnar just as the most intense period of the conflict was drawing to a close.
Her husband, an astronomer, had just taken a job at the large radio telescope array outside town, and the couple had moved there with their two-year old daughter. The people of Junnar were terrified of the attacks, and the government was under immense pressure to remove all leopards spotted in the area, she recalls.
Athreya and a local wildlife researcher, Sanjay Thakur, got permission from the forest department to investigate the attacks. Thakur did the field-work, while Athreya helped analyze the data. She delved into the published literature and found a review by Norwegian researchers on translocation, the process of trapping animals in one place and releasing them elsewhere, a method used in several places around the world to control problem animals.
Translocated animals try to return to their original territory and come close to human settlements during the journey, the study found. Further, being in a new environment stresses the animal, increasing the likelihood of conflict with people. In that one year alone, at least 40 leopards were captured from the villages and released in one of two forests at the edge of the district. But human attacks continued unabated, so local officials responded by moving the animals to forests in elsewhere in the state.
The chief bureaucrat overseeing the operation claimed to have caught more than leopards during this period, a feat for which he was awarded a gold medal by the Maharashtra state government, Rediff reported in July In other words, moving the animals simply transfers problem. She presented her findings to senior forest officials in the region. When Athreya first got involved with the leopard study, no one knew what happened to the leopards after they were released into foreign sites.
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