One month in the life of an endangered species in India
do they train Indian foresters to mess up wildlife situations? It is difficult to ascribe the series of botch-ups involving leopards in the last month or so to misfortune. The most recent one was the highly publicised spectacle of a leopard killed by police and wildlife officials after it entered a factory in southern Delhi. On November 22, 2002, authorities in Mehsana, Gujarat, fired thirty rounds from an ak-47 rifle and 50 rounds from a .303 rifle to kill a weakened and dehydrated leopard that had strayed into a market.
On New Year's Day, four workers at a tea garden in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal, were arrested for killing and eating a leopard after they had poisoned the stream where it came to drink water. A month before this, two tea garden workers were arrested for the same crime in the same area. On January 5, Uttar Pradesh police arrested a Tibetan in exile (dubbed the biggest ever don of wildlife trade in India) and seized 12 leopard skins. Don't applaud. Such arrests lead to very few convictions. If there are convictions, the jail terms are laughably inadequate. Most judges, it seems, don't understand the Wildlife Protection Act.
So what is it that our forest departments are good at? For one, threatening poor villagers and stopping them from earning their livelihood from forests. Demanding bribes for allowing people to take what is rightfully theirs, for another. Showcasing their failures internationally to attract more money for conservation programmes that are basically protection programmes aimed at keeping people out of forests. And if a wild animal strays into a village and is killed, the villagers can rest assured that a case will be registered against them, even if the killing is in self-defence. It is always easier to blame villagers of poaching than to explain their incompetence. So if a leopard strays into your village (or city), you are advised to draft a detailed complaint and approach the chief wildlife warden, who is the only one authorised to order a killing of a protected animal. However, if police and wildlife officials kill a leopard accidentally, it's okay. They know best.
In the meantime, Gujarat (which has about 10 per cent of India's leopard population) has witnessed a spotted miracle. A leopard has been regularly visiting a cow in a Vadodara village, in a rare display of inter-species friendship. A message here for gun-toting officials? Perhaps.