Three deaths in leopard attacks force Junnar forest division to propose declaring Maharashtra taluka as ‘disaster area’

Forest official says drought conditions, lack of prey base and exceeding carrying capacity reasons for attacks
A leopard photographed in a bamboo grove in Maharashtra’s Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. iStock photo for representation
A leopard photographed in a bamboo grove in Maharashtra’s Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. iStock photo for representation

Three fatal leopard attacks within weeks in Junnar taluka of Maharashtra’s Pune district have forced the forest department to propose declaring it as a ‘disaster area’.

Amol Satpute, Junnar forest division’s deputy conservator of forest, told Down To Earth (DTE) the department wrote to the Pune district collectorate on May 10. The department asked the collectorate to declare the region as a ‘disaster area’. It also demanded an additional workforce and equipment to deal with the crisis.

The latest attack took place on May 10. The 45-year-old victim — identified as Nanubai Sitaram Kadale — was working in her bajra (pearl millet) field around 8 am when the attack took place.

The first fatal encounter was reported on May 5, when a woman named Ashwini Manoj Hulawale was attacked as she worked in the fields. On May 8, an eight-year-old boy named Mahesh Fapale was killed in another attack.

Satpute told DTE that the attacks had taken place either early in the morning or late in the evening across different villages located within a 5 square kilometre zone.

The incidents were reported in Pimpari Pendhar, Kalwadi, Pimpalwadi and Shiroli. The attacks have created immense fear and panic among villagers in the area. The situation has led to alerts being sounded in 13 neighbouring villages. The forest department has also roped in additional staff from the National Disaster Response Force and volunteers from non-profit Wildlife SOS.

The forest department is also using thermal drones to track leopard movements. About 50-60 forest guards have also been deployed in the villages.

Leopards have been known to co-exist with humans in Junnar for years. However, an ongoing drought has forced leopards to migrate from neighbouring areas into Junnar, resulting in high leopard density and shortage of prey base, Satpute told DTE.

“Due to drought conditions, farmers have grown less crops. Hence, the crop density that leopards use as shelter and cover has reduced. The water scarcity has also pushed leopards to venture into areas where water is available,” he said.

Leopards in Maharashtra

Maharashtra has seen an increase in leopard numbers from 1,690 to 1,985 between 2018 and 2022 according to the Status of Leopards in India 2022 report by Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India.

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The population density of leopards has doubled in the past six years, from two-three individuals per 100 sq km to six-seven, Satpute stated.

Conflict has proportionally increased with territories of humans and leopards merging over recent years. In 2019-20 alone, Maharashtra saw 58 human deaths due to leopard attacks.

Satpute said four leopards have already been trapped. One individual was caught on May 10.

“These attacks seem to have been carried out by different leopards. It is unlikely that a single leopard is responsible for all of them,” he added.

The forest department has also installed 40 camera traps in the vicinity of Gayamukhwadi, Jambhulpad, Navalewadi, Pimpri Pendhar, Umbraj-1 and 2, Pimpalwadi, Yedgaon, Vaishakhkhede, Chalkawadi, Bhatkalwadi, Nagadwadi, Kandali and Bhorwadi villages.

Junnar forest department officials estimate that there are about 20 leopards in the vicinity and plan to trap all of them. “We will send them to the Manekdoh rescue centre as a temporary measure and senior officials and district collector may take appropriate decisions regarding them,” Satpute said.

For the time being, villagers have been advised not to step out of their houses before 9 am and after 5 pm.

“Villagers are being counselled and assured of all possible protection,” Satpute said.

He added that a number of measures have been taken by the forest department since 2022, anticipating an increase in human-leopard conflict in the area.

“A number of sensitisation camps have been held and teams have been set up. Some hotspots have been identified and a proposal for sterilisation of leopards has also been sent to the principal chief conservator of forests in January 2024,” he said.

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