When a leopard came to Bengaluru

A leopard attacking conservation scientist Sanjay Gubbi in a Bangaluru school where it had strayed into this February
Working with wildlife is like taking your car out in Bengaluru traffic, believes conservation scientist Sanjay Gubbi. “Sometimes you manage to come home without a single dent or scratch on your car, sometimes you don’t,” he explains. In fact, driving may actually be more dangerous since the vehicle density on the roads is much higher, he says.

It’s a little difficult to soak up his traffic analogy though, especially considering that Gubbi was attacked in a leopard rescue operation a month ago. He is the man in the video that has rattled all those who’ve seen it — the video that shows a leopard trapped in a Bengaluru school. ‘Wild leopard attacks man,’ ‘Man fights leopard’ are just some of the tags this video is carrying as it becomes somewhat of a viral sensation.

On February 7, when the forest department called him in, he asked the police to implement Section 144 to ensure there wasn’t a crowd at the spot, which could aggravate the situation, and to empty the swimming pool to prevent a tranquilised leopard falling in the water and drowning. Neither of those things was done; a big crowd watched as the events progressed next to a pool full of water.

Gubbi’s six-year old son is just beginning to ask him about his bandages that cover 30 bite marks on the right side of his body. An engineer who changed streams to work in conservation, Gubbi has been a part of 80-odd leopard rescue operations over two decades; he has not been injured before.

As part of his PhD, Gubbi is attempting to understand the distribution pattern of leopards over a gradient of habitats, how leopards respond to translocation and also the drivers behind human-leopard conflicts.

In light of conservationists and scientists discussing what could have been done in such situations, Gubbi explains that there is no textbook-way out of this. “Every conflict is different and if anyone says there is a textbook-way to deal with it, that person has never been in the field. There are just so many variations,” says Gubbi, who works with Nature Conservation Foundation.

According to a count by the Wildlife Institute of India last year, there are 12,000 to 14,000 leopards in India. While the Western Ghats were found to be home to 2,487 of these spotted cats, Karnataka alone boasts of 1,129.

The leopard that strayed into the school was finally tranquilised when it was attacking Gubbi and taken to the Bannerghatta National Park. It later escaped from the cage, but that’s a story for another time. For now, it’s imperative to focus on measures to tackle such an eventuality. 

Soon after reports of a leopard spotting came in on Sunday (February 7), Dipika Bajpai, deputy conservator of forest (Bengaluru Urban), arrived at the school by 7 am. There’re always veterinarians with the forest department team during such operations and an ambulance on stand-by, explains Bajpai, adding that Gubbi’s expertise was needed only when the leopard began attacking forest officials.

The panic of the incident was clearly felt: the deputy director of public instruction in south Bengaluru, K Padmavathi, announced that 129 schools would remain closed until Friday to safeguard against the possible presence of more leopards.

The only constant in each incident of human-animal conflict, says Gubbi, is the “crowd that builds up to watch, and over-enthusiastic media.” A few days after the school incident when another leopard was spotted across the city, a big crowd formed to watch the forest department in action. These people really add to our woes, Bajpai says.

“It takes a really long time to make people understand that they should stay away. And I don’t see that happening anytime soon, so what we need to do is go in with a bigger force,” she adds.

Conservationist Gerard ‘Gerry’ Martin, who became National Geographic Channel’s first Indian ‘Adventurer’ back in 2000, however, believes that humans and animals can co-exist without conflict. The animal was just passing through; we should just let it move away when this happens, says Martin.

These conflicts primarily boil down to a fight for space.

“When we hear about incidents the next day, we hear how a leopard has injured or killed so many people. But that wasn’t the intent of the leopard, he was at the wrong place, at the wrong time,” says Martin. 

Martin also urges to revisit the definition of ‘conflict.’ “We have to see if we are calling the presence of an animal a ‘conflict.’ To us, the moment there’s a snake or predator (in sight), it becomes a conflict. It’s not; conflict is when things go wrong.” 
How we reacted to the presence of a wild animal itself was very immature; crowd-control just goes out of the window in such cases and the animal gets surrounded, says Martin. There’s a frenzied energy to the activity and there are bound to be accidents then.

Still on his way to complete recovery, Gubbi pulls up his laptop next to his study window on the 17th floor. “If you talk to a person living in the drier belts of Karnataka, they’ll complain about wild pigs, and if you speak to those who stay around Bandipur and Nagarhole, they’ll complain about elephants. So, conflict is all very relative,” he Gubbi. Monkeys and honeybees cause trouble in his high-rise building, for instance.

He uses Google maps to show how Bengaluru’s forests are eccentrically dotted across the state, sharing boundaries with a considerable section of our residential areas. “Human-wildlife conflict incidences have steadily increased; our data shows incidences of leopard conflict have gone up five-folds since 2009 in Karnataka,” he says.  

Not surprisingly, hoax calls of animal sightings in the city had become an everyday affair for the forest department, adds Bajpai. “We used to get 20-25 hoax calls every day. Thankfully, the number of hoax calls has gone down recently because we’ve started verifications and stopped responding to every call,” she says.

Seen around the fringes often, leopards are actually spotted in the city only two or three times in every six months.
People, explains Bajpai, would enjoy the attention when the whole team followed up on a hoax call, looking for ghost paw marks. “But we take calls from local volunteer groups more seriously,” she emphasises.

Gubbi, too, underlines the importance of local volunteers, insisting that they should be trained alongside forest department officials. “Volunteers are critical. We need people who can assess the situation and act,” he says. He recounts the time in the late 1980s when a leopard had entered a factory on the city’s outskirts and a policeman, in trying to injure it, accidentally shot down another man.

“For years, I have suggested that we need to set up conflict response teams with equipment stationed in high conflict areas (for instance Tumkur, Hassan). The department has initiated this to an extent,” says Gubbi who advocates for a medical doctor, besides a veterinarian, local police and fire safety personnel for this team. The presence of such a team in every two districts will save crucial time and resources.

Within Karnataka, several towns and cities harbour leopards on their outskirts, says Gubbi. These include Bengaluru, Mysuru, Tumkur, Hassan, Chitradurga, Ramanagara and Channapatna.

“Some are already facing problems of leopards entering cities and towns. These areas should also be on the priority list for training personnel and equipment provisioning,” says Gubbi, cautioning that other towns could soon join this list if the issue of loss of leopard habitats isn’t addressed.

From protecting functional animal corridors to obtaining more concrete data on subjects such as translocation of animals, we have much to do to reduce conflict between man and animal, says Gubbi. “No single solution will work to reduce human wildlife-conflict; it has to be a combination of solutions, and they all have to be site-specific,” he reinstates.

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