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Bhopal's elusive leopard
A leopard has been wandering the fringes of Bhopal and the forest department officials have been unable to either trap it or to tranquilize it.

FOR ABOUT a week, a leopard has been stalking the fringes of the town. It has been sighted by several people in the Indian Institute of Forest Management, near the National Judicial Academy and some farms where it made meals of a few cattle. It even attacked a child of a family living in a slum near the Bhadbhada dam as also six others near the Judicial Academy. Despite their best efforts, the forest department officials have so far not been able to trap it or even tranquilise it for being relocated elsewhere.

Sighting of itinerant big cats near or within the city limits has become frequent. While they have not killed any human so far but in desperate hunger they could do so. This time the child and the people in question somehow managed to escape but next time they may not be so lucky. If, unfortunately, that happened, it will lead to man-animal conflict culminating inevitably in killing of none other but the animal. Several reports from various parts of the country have since appeared in the press of leopards being hacked to death. Their only crime was that they unwittingly strayed into human habitation.

The question that arises is whether the animals are encroaching into the territory of humans or whether humans, with ever-expanding numbers and being always intrusive, are pushing the limits of their habitation into the domain of wildlife. The rising numbers of man-animal conflicts all over the country seem to suggest that humans are consistently advancing into ever-shrinking domain of wildlife. Cities and towns are constantly expanding gobbling up forests and farmlands. Governments and their town planners have never thought of determining the limits of expansion of the urban agglomerations. Perhaps, the general feeling is “bigger the better”. Even an important politician has now felt that farmlands should not be used for urban expansion.

In the instant case, it should have been the business of the forest department to have prevented human encroachment in the forests with rich flora and fauna in and around Kerwa. It has, unfortunately, failed to do so, leading to the situations that have now repeatedly been cropping up. The department not only failed to prevent squatters who put up their shanties exposing the inmates to the risk of attack by predators, it also allowed large institutions, farm houses and restaurants to come up in the area which was once wilderness and should have remained so.

One wonders whether proper environmental impact assessments were carried out before allowing the National Law Institute University and the National Judicial Academy to come up. Worse is the case of the Sanskar Valley School which was allowed to be built deep inside the forests of Chandanpura – the patch of forest that has been the haunt of wandering big cats. It is not known why the government pitched on these forests for these institutions when they could have easily been accommodated in the north or east of the town

Generally, nobody ever writes about the acts of indiscretions of the forest department. But, a local newspaper gathered enough guts to highlight these recently. Its basic theme was that on the one hand during the Vanmahotsava (tree planting festival) the department goes about planting thousands of saplings in order to create new forests, on the other, it readily allows large-scale felling of trees in forests to accommodate educational institutions, farmhouses of powerful and influential, restaurants, etc. True, the department, as any other, is pressurised by the politicians and powerful bureaucrats but can’t the army of senior officers that is there in the department develop some stiffness in the spine to withstand the pressures for the sake of maintaining the forest wealth of the nation and thereby conserve the local and national environment?

A manifest instance of the department’s indifference towards conservation of the local environment was its clearance for creation by the Tourism Development Corporation of the complex called Sair Sapata, a sort of amusement park,close to an area of the Upper Lake that hosts several species of domestic and migratory birds. It never seemed to have occurred to the forest officials that such a multi-activity massive complex would attract large number of people who will necessarily disturb the birds which fly long distances to come and roost in the area that happens to be in close proximity to the planned facility.

Privately, the forest authorities managing Van Vihar agree that the facility should not have been allowed. None, however, stood up for the birds and objected to its development. The inevitable happened. The bird arrivals are reported to have steeply fallen. The migrants are overflying the Upper Lake and are roosting in more peaceful and congenial small wetlands not far from the town. Everyone in authority, especially in the forest department, seemed to have forgotten that the Lake of Bhopal is one of the six Ramsar sites in the country which also are Important Bird Areas, so designated by none other than the Bird Life International. That status has now come under threat because of utter indifference of the forest department.

There is, therefore, a widespread feeling that the forest departments which are supposed to have conserved wilderness in the country, in fact, have been largely responsible for their drastic depletion and the wildlife therein, including the iconic tiger. The reasons might be many but most are inherent in the departments’ working methods and, of course, their attitudes. 

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