After a tiring search operation to locate a leopard in a crowded locality of Nashik city in Maharashtra, wildlife rescuers identified its location through CCTV footage of a residential apartment. But the bigger challenge was to reach the spot without pushing through and attracting thousands of onlookers gathered on the streets.

“The rescuers decided to divert the crowd by hurriedly announcing that the leopard was found at another spot,” recollected Abhijeet Mahale, one of the rescuers. “After the crowd ran, the team swiftly went in, tranquilised the leopard, and transported it to safety.”

But manipulating and controlling a crowd is not easy. Last month, a young stray Indian bison met its end on Pune city’s streets due to stress and exhaustion after a 10-hour rescue effort that was severely hampered by a large crowd.

Earlier, in November 2020, alarmed at the presence of thousands of curious onlookers in Tezpur town’s outskirts in the Eastern Himalayan foothills, a royal Bengal tiger that had moved out of a protected area, pounced on a man as he tumbled into a ditch.

In 2019, a Himalayan brown bear tumbled into a stream from a cliff face in Ladakh’s Kargil after being chased by a stone-pelting mob. With its lustrous tawny hide, the bear, as seen in a video, was struggling to clamber onto the rocky cliff.

The tiger that entered the outskirts of Tezpur town in November 2020 suddenly charged at the crowd and pounced on an onlooker. Photo credit: Raj Ballav Sarma

When a wild animal enters a human-dominated area, wildlife rescuers and the forest department either divert it back to its habitat or sedate and rehabilitate it to safety. But the formation of a mob of humans creates challenges and highlights the gaps in wildlife rescue and management.

Mongabay-India spoke with a section of wildlife managers, conservationists, rescuers, veterinarians, and biologists about mob-control while handling a stressed wild animal and about a mob frenzied to kill an animal in retaliation.

The conversations highlight the pressing need for cooperation between forest departments and district and police administrations to enforce laws to prohibit public gathering and nip what may become a restless mob. The experts emphasise on the shortage of adequate equipment and staff and the need for public education and long-term community engagement to ensure smooth wildlife operations.

“Generally, people are very curious about seeing large mammals such as tigers, leopards, bears, gaur, all of which sometimes come into dense human areas, so there is usually an uncontrollable mob,” said wildlife biologist Sanjay Gubbi, who observes that mob control is a safety issue for those involved in rescue operations and for the animals involved. “They do not adhere to protocols nor do they listen to the authorities.”

Chaotic crowds stressed animals

Gubbi, who was attacked by a leopard in 2016 while trying to rescue the animal from a school campus in Bengaluru said that people’s enthusiasm about large mammals and the resulting fervour to click photos blurs boundaries between safety and excitement.

“When the animal is scared, it runs amok, and it may hurt the crowd, and the animal is generally blamed in these circumstances,” he added. “Animals come under a lot of pressure seeing a crowd because they are not used to so many people. Such situations push up their adrenaline levels, and if there are efforts to tranquilise the animal, then the high adrenaline levels interfere with the process of sedation. So you can’t really tranquilise and capture them then. There is also the risk of animals dying when they are not calm during the sedation and capture process.”

Echoing Gubbi, G Umapathy, Senior Principal Scientist at Centre for Cell and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, who examines animals’ stress responses from human activities, adds that ungulates (large mammals with hooves) are particularly vulnerable when they are sedated under high-stress conditions.

“Herbivores often cannot cope with high amounts of stress when we put them in nets and cages without being sedated while a crowd surrounds them,” wildlife vet Shantanu Kalambi said Elaborating on the rescue of herbivores amidst a large crowd. “They might survive for a day or two and then suddenly die of capture myopathy, a condition in which muscles start to break down due to fatal levels of lactic acid buildup.”

Stress varies across the animals’ age and sex, their experience with humans in shared landscapes also matters. In the Valparai plateau in Tamil Nadu elephants in tea, coffee and cardamom plantations regularly cross paths with people. Umapathy and his students found that adult elephants, having spent a greater part of their lifetime in a human-dominated landscape, appeared habituated to human-caused disturbances compared to calves possibly due to a relative lack of exposure to such conflict.

In the Indian Trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh, where most wildlife in the region is usually outside existing protected areas, the availability of easy food in human settlements and defence establishments attracts wildlife including red foxes, wolves, and bears, influencing human-wildlife interactions.

Sajid Sultan, Ladakh’s Chief Wildlife Warden, said, “We have conditioned the animals to artificial and quick food, providing them with more options.”

“And when they are moving around in human habitations, they inadvertently are targeted by mobs that start pelting stones to drive them away,” Sultan said, referring to 2019’s brown bear incident.

Elephants cross the Asian highway in West Bengal in the presence of a large crowd and forest officials. Photo credit: Avijan Saha

Coordination for crowd control

India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, in its guidelines for mitigating conflicts with elephants, leopards, and tigers, spells out measures such as effective mob/crowd control plan in conflict hotspots, proactively involving the district administration and police to maintain law and order in the area and imposing Section 144 (to prohibit public gatherings) of the Indian penal code by district authorities if the situation demands it.

“There is very little awareness about these guidelines and there is no cross-cooperation between authorities,” shared Gubbi. Additionally, the forest department is not trained to do crowd control. They do not have the authority to impose curfews to control the crowd.

“Ideally, there should be three main agencies involved when wildlife enters a human-dominated area,” said Vidya Athreya, wildlife biologist and expert on human-leopard interactions. “The forest department has the know-how to handle the animal. The police department needs to control the crowd. The revenue department has the power to enforce Section 144 if needed. But the issue is when the departments, especially the police and revenue, are not sensitised and made aware of their importance in wildlife management.”

In a densely populated Mumbai, where leopards often step out of Sanjay Gandhi National Park and enter adjoining residential areas, Athreya said that the mob situation doesn’t arise, and conflicts are low due to coordination between agencies. “Through the Mumbaikars for Sanjay Gandhi National Park initiative, we had several meetings with the police department and created awareness about the issue,” she said.

Sultan, Ladakh’s Chief Wildlife Warden, identified “manhandling and mishandling” of staff as critical issues in mob control in the Union Territory. “Imposing Section 144 to control crowds when we mitigate wildlife-human conflict issues is a distant dream as it requires clockwork-like coordination with local administration and police due to the time-sensitive nature of the challenge.”

Dharmendra Khandal from Tiger Watch, an NGO that works towards community involvement for wildlife conservation and reducing conflicts around Ranthambore National Park, said, “144 is not always practical. In a remote area, once a large mob has gathered, it might be difficult to implement such a law. The failure of 144 imposed during Covid-19 lockdown is proof. Also, wild animals are regular in areas around (national) parks and frequent use of 144 could be seen as a failure of administration.”

Officials restrain a leopard in Nashik while being surrounded by a large crowd. Photo credit: Eco Echo Foundation

Training to tackle a mob

The presence of a large crowd or mob hinders every stage of animal rescue. Veterinarians, usually one or two, onsite to tend to an animal, are often disturbed and pushed while shooting a dart to sedate the animal.

Kalambi, who has experienced several such instances highlighted the lack of mob control training for vets and even forest staff. “I had once darted a tiger outside Bandipur National Park,” he said. “It takes some time for the animal to fall asleep and by then hundreds of people were surrounding it. We lost a lot of time navigating through the crowd and once we reached close to the tiger, the crowd kept pushing us on the tiger which was still quite awake. It was complete chaos.”

Even if an area is cordoned off from people, “it becomes easy for the right action to be carried out by the authorities,” according to Athreya. Mahale’s experience in Nashik bears testimony. A 12-hour operation that involved coordinated condoning off areas and traffic control, helped peacefully divert an Indian bison out of the dense urban area.

Sultan pushed for imparting training to field staff in crowd control, tranquilisation techniques and protocols, and equipping them with the right gear to quash problem crowds. Emphasising similar needs, Gubbi pointed out though mob situations do not arise often, they can be critical.

“It’s like disaster management, you may not have a disaster every day but you need to be prepared, the staff needs to have regular training and drills,” he said. “These should also be incorporated into their curriculum in Range Forest Officer, Foresters, Guard training schools.”

One step in this direction is how Karnataka State Disaster Management Agency and the Administrative Training Institute, Mysore, have blended human-wildlife conflict into their programme. “Human-wildlife conflict is a core subject and we train people across all sectors in management issues including crowd control,” said Gubbi.

News reporters on the field, if not sensitised, often become part of the mob. Abhijeet Mahale has witnessed the downside of the rush to click images. “A leopard in Nashik panicked by people, reporters and their cameras, charged at some people,” Mahale said. “ A few people, including reporters, were injured, and a half an hour operation lasted for six hours.”

Athreya explained that the media could create awareness about wildlife and help reduce the pressure on the field staff. “Creation of media WhatsApp groups in Mumbai has helped communication between forest officers and reporters to share visuals and information,” she added. “This ensures that the media can do its job and the staff is not disturbed on duty.”

Community power vs the crowd

Only around 5% of India’s area is under the protected area network, and a large percentage of the country’s wildlife live outside protected boundaries. In areas such as forest fringes and villages around national parks and sanctuaries, where wildlife lives close to humans, the active involvement of the community could also hold answers to disarm a mob.

Tiger Watch has formed a tight network of 50 paid volunteers and 250 auxiliary members from villages in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve’s periphery. The community, primarily herders, share real-time information about wild animals’ movement, mainly tigers, amongst the community and the forest authorities.

The effort quells the probability of mob formation and the chances of a conflict. “Information is crucial,” said Khandal. “If the people are part of the process, it is more likely that other villagers will listen to them over to authorities. But it is important to build long-term relationships between community, forest departments and NGOs.”

Wild animals, especially carnivores, and the wildlife management team are often chased by an angry mob in retaliation to sensitive issues related to loss of lives, property and livelihood, and compensation. “In places where conflicts are frequent, I feel that frustration towards the animal is actually frustration towards the system,” said Athreya.

Conservation researcher Trishant Simlai shared that mob behaviour of local residents in conservation landscapes is mainly driven by a past history of conflict with the state (forest department) and lived experiences of forest-dwelling communities. “These are of course contextual and place-based even within a similar geography,” Simlai told Mongabay-India, adding that discrimination based on caste, contestations of space, history of eviction or displacement and curtailment of forest rights all play a role.

“Often in fringe villages of protected areas, village residents refer to wildlife as ‘the forest department’s animals’. They say “they (forest department) have a problem when we go into the forest while they do nothing when their elephants raid our crops!” said Simlai, PhD Student, Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge.

In human-dominated agricultural landscapes away from protected areas mob behaviour could be a reaction to state neglect to non-conservation issues, delayed responses to problem animals or past experiences of areas being declared protected areas because of the presence of important species like the tiger, elephant, leopard.

“A good example is the Nannaj grasslands of Maharashtra, wherein for the protection of the great Indian bustard, grazing and access rights of local residents were curbed,” said Simlai. “In a few years, when the birds moved to nearby agricultural fields for foraging owing to grassland degradation due to bad management, they were met with intense aggression by local communities. This is a factor in other areas too where local residents start associating the presence of a tiger, elephant etc with restrictive forest policies.”

Kalambi and Mahale, both who have both been caught amidst a mob and been extremely close to wild animals, emphasise the importance of community relationship building. The veterinarian has encountered a situation where a mob angered by a stray tiger decided to charge at the authorities. But the situation was eventually controlled because of the goodwill the vet had earned from his earlier work tending to the villages’ livestock.

“In and around Nashik, we often go to the gram panchayat or community leader and ask them to send some volunteers who can handle the crowd,” Mahale added. “Orders coming from the community hold more value. The community leaders feel good about being involved and we get a helping hand.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.