Wildlife & Biodiversity

Sterile measure: Is Maharashtra and Gujarat’s plan to sterilise leopards and prevent conflict with humans feasible?

Critics say investing time and financial resources to sterilise wild leopards may not be wise; cite a number of reasons

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Wednesday 13 September 2023
Approval of Maharashtra or Gujarat's leopard sterilisation proposals would be a first for animal in the country (Photograph: Akash Dolas / Wildlife SOS)__

The birth of an Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca) should be a cause for celebration, given that it has long been classified as “endangered” under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) also lists the animal under the Appendix I category, implying it is at risk of extinction. So, when Maharashtra decided to sterilise leopards, it triggered debate.

In early August, the state forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar directed the forest department to prepare an action plan for leopard sterilisation within two months. This will be submitted to the Centre.

“If approved, a detailed study on scientific feasibility, distribution of leopard population across geography, estimates and sustained limits of population and other aspects will be commissioned and accordingly a decision will be made," Mungantiwar tells Down To Earth.

“If permitted, Maharashtra will be the first state to engage in sustainable management of population for leopards,” claims Amol Satpute, deputy conservator of forests, Junnar.

The state government says controlling the animal’s population is one of the urgent solutions needed to control the rise in leopard-human conflicts. As per the latest national leopard census, Status of Leopards, Co-predators and Megaherbivores-2018, Maharashtra has 1,690 leopards. This is the fourth highest after Madhya Pradesh (3,421 leopards, as per the 2018 census), Gujarat (2,274, as per the state’s estimates in 2023) and Karnataka (1,783, as per the 2018 census).

“The estimates (for the 2018 census) were taken in only 18 states where the tiger population exists, and leopard areas beyond the tiger range were not surveyed,” says H S Singh, former principal chief conservator of forests, Gujarat, and member, National Board of Wildlife.

Leopard Conflict Management in Maharashtra, a report published in 2021, says 332 of the 376 forest ranges have leopards, with 88 per cent of them showing presence of the animal outside protected areas.

The authors note that due to significant increase in irrigation infrastructure, water is available round the year. People have largely switched to water-intensive crops like sugarcane, pomegranate and grapes, which offers dense vegetation for the elusive leopards. This trend is seen in Satara, Solapur, Pune, Ahmednagar and Nashik districts, with a proliferation of leopards and their prey, wild pigs.

“The population density of leopards has doubled in the past six years, from two-three individuals per 100 sq km to six-seven. Mortality rate of cubs in the natural wild is less than 50 per cent due to threats from other predators. In semi-urban, rural areas and sugarcane fields, survival chances are 75-100 per cent,” Satpute says.

As territories of humans and leopards have practically merged, conflicts are rising. In 2019-20 alone, Maharashtra saw 58 human deaths due to leopards—over half the 97 casualties in 2010-18. Animal casualties were 176 in 2020-21, equal to those in 2016-18, says Singh’s analysis of data from the state chief wildlife warden and Wildlife Institute of India (WII).

In 2021, Gujarat too mooted a sterilisation programme for leopards around Gir National Park, which is yet to be approved by the Centre. The state forest department says leopard population has grown by 63 per cent in 2016-23. Singh’s analysis of state data indicates 48 human deaths in 2018-21 due to conflict with leopards.


Questions raised

Neha Panchamiya, founder and president of RESQ, a charitable trust, says, “While sterilisation alone will not work, there is merit in deploying it with other ways to manage human-leopard conflicts.”

Satpute says sterilisation would begin on a pilot basis. “We need to build the skill of veterinarians,” he says. “It is known that weight of female dogs increases after sterilisation, but not how bodies of felines will react.

Hence, it will not be a blanket application; only leopards caught in rescue operations or those injured will undergo sterilisation,” he says. He says a detailed protocol and policy will offer more clarity.

However, “increase in frequency of sightings of leopards may give the misleading impression of increase in numbers,” says Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder and CEO of Delhi-based non-profit Wildlife SOS. “It may not be a good use of financial resources and time to sterilise wild leopards, because there is no hard scientific evidence that indicates this would help bring down numbers,” he says.

Qamar Qureshi, nodal officer of the tiger cell at WII, says sterilisation is a complex process that must be backed by advance studies on efficacy, impact on animals and field feasibility. “For contraception to work, it must happen on a large scale and over a longer period in human-dominated areas. The exercise has to be repeatable. The reason birth control did not work with dogs or macaques is that implementation and planning was not effective,” he warns.

“We have observed that capturing leopards even for radio collaring causes significant stress and leads to attacks on humans near release sites,” says Vidya Athreya of Wildlife Conservation Society’s India programme.

“Using traditional methods of tubectomy and vasectomy may entail challenges in catching the leopards, sterilising, keeping them captive until the wounds heal and then releasing,” says Y V Jhala, former dean and scientist at WII. “Territorial dynamics may change and conflicts may arise among the species,” he adds. He, however, says mortality under traditional methods is usually less than 5 per cent.

Jhala suggests another solution to engineer contraception. “In pigs, the hormone porcine zona pellucida (PZP) is extracted from the ovary lining and converted into a vaccine injected in females. The hormone produces antibodies that prevent fertilisation and pregnancy by triggering an immune response in the body against its own ova,” he says.

A WII expert anonymously explains that it is non-invasive and less traumatic. “It is also reversible, which means the animals retain fertility after a few years,” the expert says. But it has only been studied for potential population control in elephants, nilgai, wild boars and Rhesus macaques, and is expensive.

Athreya says focus should be on curbing conflicts. “Maharashtra’s and the country's policies are concrete and technically sound, and have helped in controlling conflicts,” she says. She emphasises on maintaining cleanliness and avoiding creation of waste dumps.

“Dogs, cattle and pigs often get attracted to dumps, which in turn leads to leopards hunting here,” she says. She cites an example from Israel, where cleaning some villages led to a decrease in populations of foxes causing menace.

Coexistence possible?

Even as authorities mull ways to curb population and conflict, communities in Maharashtra vote down sterilisation and seem to accept coexistence. Kaustubh Batwal, a mechanical engineer from Otur village in Junnar taluka, is a survivor of a leopard attack.

“I was three years old, playing on the porch when the leopard attacked me,” he says. He was dragged some 9 m before his father rescued him. The incident cost him his left eye; he got 300 stitches and was hospitalised for six months.

“But I am not afraid of leopards. There are regular sightings and we are used to them,” he says. Jayesh Shah of Awsari village, Ambegaon taluka, says, “Sterilisation may not come to fruition since no one can precisely point out where leopards are.” The animals usually venture out at night, he says, adding, “Residents only see leopards during the day is when they fall in wells and need rescue.”

Cassandra Nazareth, who works with tribal people of Aarey forest in Mumbai says, “Tribal communities around Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Aarey forest live in harmony with leopards and even worship them.” A senior state forest official says on the condition of anonymity, “As a department, we are conservationists. But if the decision to sterilise is approved, it will be political.”

This was first published in the 1-15 September, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth 

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