(Above video courtesy of Rohan Bhate)
In the span of seven days, rigorous efforts were made by the forest department and NGO wildlife professionals to reunite a leopard cub stranded in a burned down sugarcane field, with her mother.
On 9 April, farmers in Satara district's Karad who were harvesting sugarcane found two leopard cubs in the field. On closer inspection, they saw that one was already dead. Seeing the other one alive, they were overcome with fear, and set the field ablaze, causing their mother to flee.
After preliminary checks the next day, and confirming the living cub's health status, the district Range Forest Officer (RFO) Ajit Sajane, NGO Creative Nature Friends' representative Rohan Bhate and two guards consulted experts, including Dr Ajay Deshmukh, at the Leopard Rescue Centre in Manikdoh, Junnar. They learnt that reuniting the cub with her mother was an easy possibility. The dead cub was taken for a post-mortem, while the female cub, around 30 to 40 days old and weighing two kilograms, was carefully nursed and fed.
At around 6.30 pm on 10 April the next day, the group brought a crate and placed it at the exact location the cubs had first been found. Locals were asked to leave the field undisturbed, and infrared cameras were set-up to keep an eye on the cub through the night. That night, the mother came into the field; first at around 8 pm, when she stayed till 8.30 pm, and then coming back for short intervals at 9:30 pm, 10 pm and 4 am. She sniffed around the crate, but left the cub in there.
The mother's pattern of visiting continued the next two days, coming and leaving from the same route as observed by the camera, visiting at the same timings, sniffing and staying around but not taking the cub with her. The group speculated that part of the reason for her hesitance was that this was the first time the female gave birth. They remained confident that she would take the cub away, since she visited regularly each day, and decided to make it easier for her to spot her cub.
The next day, on 13 April, it rained heavily and the mother did not appear. The group decided to take further actions, removing the crate and placing the cub on a mound of bricks, so the mother could access her more easily. However, while she did not come out in the clearing, they could hear the mother growling as they arranged the new setup. The group collected the cub's urine and spread it around on the bricks where the cub was kept, so the mother would be at ease, guided by the scent. The mother arrived at about 9:15 pm on 14 April. She stayed all night, milking her cub and looking for the other one, finally leaving at around 5 am on 15 April with her cub.
The area most populated with leopards in Maharashtra is Pune's Junnar area, where such rescue attempts have been carried out more than 50 times. While officials here have had cases of leopards needing rescue before (there have been three or four attempts previously), this is a first of its kind in Kurad, involving a cub.
The population of leopards is increasing. Bhate finds that 'in the last ten years, leopards have been spotted in 39 new villages'.
For the past two decades, leopards have adapted so that sugarcane fields serve as their natural habitat. Every new generation of leopards instinctually prefers the fields and surrounding civil areas to actual jungles as their home.
Sajane cites the example of a leopard who was captured in Pune and taken to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, fitting it with a GPS chip. Following the chip, they found that the leopard had taken to the road, travelling over 200 kilometres in a matter of three to four days, returning to its civil habitat in Pune.
The locals are not accepting of leopards in civil spaces and according to Sajane, the highest priority is 'to change the mindset of the people'. According to him, his district doesn't have any recorded incidents of leopards attacking human beings, and claims that 'it doesn't happen'. Leopards focus on the easy prey they find in civilisation, including stray dogs, goats and calves. The only solution to this problem, according to Sajane, is making people aware that 'they are also animals and human beings are also animals', and that 'we have to live along with them'.
Bhate says that while the forest department's wildlife wing conducts a regular census, the territorial wing doesn't have such records for other areas. They 'don't have any records of how many leopards are roaming outside the protected area'. Bhate feels that 'in the near future, this is going to cause a big havoc', and that immediate expert attention is required to bring order to the situation.
According to Sajane, awareness is the main concern of the government, besides setting up rapid response teams. When an incident such as this is recorded, a team strives to get there within an hour, and they have the training to capture such leopards if the need arises. Without modern equipment like tranquiliser guns, the officials are doing their best with the limited infrastructure.
Wildlife laws are being implemented more strictly more and punishment is guaranteed. 'We are getting results', says Sajane, and adds that 'the forest department is very positive', doing their duty and having accepted the fact that changing someone's mindset isn't something they are going to achieve in a day or even a year, but might well take generations.
While people are sometimes rescuing and helping trapped animals, such wildlife attacks have been reported before, attesting to the rising human-animal conflict and highlighting the need for the urgent spread of awareness.