The footage was frightening. An agile leopard was running through a school premises in Bengaluru, taking swipes and bites at humans in its path. But turn up the volume on the video and the leopard looks more like a bewildered cat being bombarded by loud yelling and banging. People all around are trying to capture the animal physically or on camera and have left no evident route of escape.
Press reports about Sunday's incident used words such as “attack”, “maul”, “prowl”, and “rampage” to describe the leopard’s behaviour, suggesting that it had come looking for human flesh. But would such a marauding beast looking to attack humans enter an empty building – a school on Sunday – and then retire to a quiet eucalyptus grove? Wildlife researchers who have worked with leopards all say that they are essentially shy animals with no predilection to socialise with man.
“When people see a leopard, the instinct here is to pick up a lathi and charge it, when we should leave it alone,” said Ravi Ralph, the principal chief conservator of forests in charge of wildlife for the Karnataka Forest Department. After the leopard’s school visit on Sunday and its subsequent capture, there were reports of sightings of two more leopards in neighbourhoods of south-east Bengaluru. The education department declared a holiday for 60 schools in the area, The Hindu reported, and some 134 remained shut on Wednesday and Thursday as a precautionary measure.
Big cat confusion
Ralph said these reports of additional leopard sightings were unconfirmed and the decision to shut schools was taken without consulting the Forest Department. “There is an unnecessary panic about this. Leopards are normally found close to this area," he said. "They are nocturnal animals and may come close to the buildings during the night-time, might attack a dog as prey and then go away. But it doesn’t create panic because nobody sees them at night.”
This isn’t the first instance of unreasonable panic over a leopard being spotted in the city. After a leopard sighting was reported in April last year, forest department officials began getting calls about leopard pugmarks near apartment complexes in the Bannerghatta area in the south. As it turned out, the pugmarks belonged to a dog.
Leopard sightings are not uncommon in Bengaluru either. They have been seen in recent years in neighbourhoods on the boundaries, where villages and clumps of forest merge with the city. Some have even been killed while trying to cross a major highway connecting Bengaluru and Mysore, leading to the creation of leopard crossings on the stretch. The mosaic of forest and rocky grasslands to the south of the city is the ideal leopard habitat. The expanding city and the presence of accessible prey in the form of small animals encourage leopards to make urban excursions.
Another metropolitan city, Mumbai, has had a similar problem, with a big human population and a big leopard population both within and outside Sanjay Gandhi National Park in the northern part of the city. But Mumbai has over time learnt how to deal with its leopards in a way that is not detrimental to human or feline life.
In the early 2000s, as Mumbai’s urban sprawl knocked up against the national park, there was a spate of leopard attacks on people living near the park. Some of these conflicts even led to the death of children, thus causing an uproar. People made various demands – that leopards be removed from the vicinity, that all leopards found in the area be relocated inside the park, that a wall be built around the park to keep them in.
Mumbai’s forest officials even tried to capture leopards from grasslands around the city and shift them to the national park – an experiment that failed and led to an increase in leopard attacks. Wildlife biologists have shown that leopards are territorial by nature and relocating the animals can cause stress and make them more aggressive. Displacing a leopard also fails to serve a purpose because another one will merely take its place.
Mumbai finally found a remedy through an initiative called Mumbaikars for SGNP, which was launched in 2011. Building upon the work of wildlife researchers who studied leopard movement and dietary habits, the initiative focuses on addressing conflict by advising people on leopard behaviour and trying to change attitudes to minimise conflict.
Leopards are extremely mobile and cover long distances looking for food and shelter. So a leopard sighting doesn’t necessarily mean that it has moved into the neighbourhood. Leopards are also highly adaptable, which is why they are able to live close to human settlements where feral dogs, pigs or even dead cattle can be easy prey. Yet, they don’t particularly fancy interacting with humans.
With this in mind, Mumbaikars for SGNP works with forest and police officials to show how the first thing to do when a leopard is spotted in the city is to cordon off the area and keep people away from the spot. They also advise people living near leopard habitats to be watchful after dark and not leave children unattended outdoors. Good lighting and even some light music can alert leopards to the presence of people and keep them away. Keeping a neighbourhood free of garbage reduces the presence of dogs and its predator, the leopard.
The Mumbai experiment seems to have paid off with no attacks reported since 2013 – a lesson that leopards and humans can peacefully co-habit cities if we recognise the need to stay out of each other’s way.