Why we should have kept quiet about the leopard of Wazirabad

The most important lesson that this incident will teach conservation biologists is—not all good news ought to be shared


The leopard  which was spotted at the Yamuna Biodiversity Park in Wazirabad, Delhi.  Photo: PTI
The leopard which was spotted at the Yamuna Biodiversity Park in Wazirabad, Delhi. Photo: PTI

The week gone by saw two news items where the innocuous leopard made headlines in the capital. One young male leopard was clubbed to death by a bloodthirsty mob near Gurgaon. Another (still alive) has taken refuge in an eco-restoration project at the Yamuna Biodiversity Park in Wazirabad on the edge of Delhi.

While the two incidents were unrelated, our dear policymakers didn’t want to take a chance and so learning from the Gurgaon incident, the chief wildlife warden of Delhi has ordered a trap to be set at the Biodiversity Park so that the leopard could be caught and removed. A news item that was a source of joy will now spell doom for this poor hapless animal that has quite literally walked into a trap.

That his order is in blatant violation of the law cannot be ignored. The law forbids capture of a wild animal without establishing any reason that it is a threat to human life. But the law is often ignored or dispensed with when it comes to wild animals; human lives are more important at any cost. At least that’s the message that has come out from the office of the chief wildlife warden when such random orders are issued.

Fact is, there may be more leopards, this may not be the only one, but this news should not have been celebrated. It should have been the best-kept secret of the team of biologists who captured the leopard on camera.

A scientist working on large carnivores once told me, “we know of several such towns and cities where leopards exist in often close proximity to humans, but we don’t always make this knowledge public; they are not a hazard to anyone, it will become life threatening if we reveal the information.”

Life threatening he meant for the animal, mind you, not the humans.

Big cat expert Vidya Athreya, who has spent a lifetime working on leopard conflict, on being asked about this particular incident and what should be done, said in an interview that in fact nothing should be done, the animal should just be left alone.

“The problem is that it will go away quietly if the area is not fit for it—it is probably a disperser, but the way they will catch and where will the leave it (making it even more dangerous near the release site) is far worse. No one would have known it is there if it were not for the camera traps,” she said.

Faiyaz Khudsar, a biologist at the Biodiversity Park who has been spending sleepless nights tracking the animal, doesn’t want to leave anything to chance. He’s worried not for humans but for the leopard and the threat from the sea of humanity that surrounds the Biodiversity Park— people who have already petitioned the top offices of the government to get the animal removed.

The Biodiversity Park surrounded by a polluted Yamuna river, and a giant pile of garbage that is belched out by the city daily was an attempt to set right all that is ecologically wrong with the city. It may not be the ideal habitat for this big cat, but that’s a choice the animal has made. The best choice that could have been was to leave the animal ALONE.

We live in the most polluted city in the world, along a toxic river that becomes sludge the moment it enters the capital. But once in a while something happens that reminds us that the city too has a living breathing ecology pulsating with other forms of life that deserve a chance as much as its human residents. It is possible that this young male leopard, if it is lucky after making the Biodiversity Park its home, may slink away. It may just go away in a few weeks or months or it may survive by preying on the neighbourhood street dogs, but let’s give this leopard a chance.

Yes you may ask if this mob turns bloodthirsty and in a fit of rage attacks the animal that may in turn attack the humans, who would be responsible? That’s the risk which no politician wants to take and that’s the logic that may have prompted this decision.

And that’s why the most important lesson that this incident will teach conservation biologists is—not all good news ought to be shared. In a world with vanishing tolerance for wild animals, our camera traps reveal the secret lives of animals that are sometimes best kept secret.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and currently working on a book titled Restoring Nature for Oxford University Press.

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