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Orphaned and exposed, why these Indian leopard cubs can’t return to the wild

Orphan leopards can seldom be released in the wild, but there is no space for them in zoos and rescue centres.

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I notice three pairs of blue eyes fixated on me. Three leopard cubs, two females and one male, dart swiftly into hiding as soon as I step into the RESQ large carnivore enclosure. Their eyes follow me as I settle down at a distance on the mud. I return their gaze and then quickly disengage because, in my head, I suffer the guilt of having no clear answers about what the future has in store for them.

I have always been ambitious about ‘keeping wildlife wild’ which is why when a wild animal gets admitted to the RESQ Wildlife Treatment Transit Centre (TTC), every medical and rehabilitation decision made is based on the eventual goal of reintroducing it back to its natural habitat. We have put in relentless rehabilitation and reintroduction efforts for several other lesser cats and wild canids in the past that have been successful. These initiatives have been immensely supported by the Maharashtra Forest Department, especially for relatively non-conflict species in human-dominated landscapes.

Standard protocol for wild animals admitted at the RESQ Wildlife TTC dictates minimal handling and no human imprinting. But in the case of these leopard cubs, I know they’re never going back to the wild. In engaging with them and exposing them to the presence of humans and handling, I am now doing exactly the opposite of what we normally do at RESQ.

Siblings exploring their new enclosure and enrichments in the RESQ Wildlife TTC, Pune | Neha Panchamia
Siblings exploring their new enclosure and enrichments in the RESQ Wildlife TTC, Pune | Neha Panchamia

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The current scenario

As a guideline for large cat ‘rewilding’ or reintroduction into the wild, the standard operating procedures laid down by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) under Section 38(O) of The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 state that there are three ways to deal with orphaned or abandoned tiger cubs. In line with provision (2) of Section 11 (1) (a) of the WLPA 1972, the first priority is to rehabilitate the captured wild animal into the wild before taking it into captivity by attempting a reunion with its mother. If that fails, shift it to a suitable zoo or rescue centre. The third is to attempt rewilding when they are older and independent. It specifies guidelines for rewilding of ‘tigers’ and owing to their endangered status, multiple efforts to rewild tigers have been made in India. But there is virtually no support for permitting the rehabilitation and release of leopards back into the wild.

Protecting species of high concern and managing the human-wildlife conflict is already a major challenge for forest officials. Raising leopard cubs to survive in their natural habitat and monitoring them using modern technology is not the real challenge, the hard part is finding a suitable place to release them. When looked at from a wildlife management perspective, most ask – why bother releasing potentially conflict animals back in the wild? Especially when India’s official leopard count has increased as per a government report released last year.

Recognised rescues centres and zoos in Maharashtra suffer an acute shortage of space to house an increasing number of large carnivores being deemed for lifetime captivity. The few spots that open for them are replenished by the ones in rescue centres, which are in turn quickly filled up by leopards captured in human-leopard conflict scenarios.

Young female leopard cub waiting for meal time at RESQ Wildlife TTC | Neha Panchamia
Young female leopard cub waiting for meal time at RESQ Wildlife TTC | Neha Panchamia

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Reducing human-leopard conflict in Maharashtra

Increasing incidents of conflict in 2019 and 2020 were brought to the notice of the Maharashtra State Wildlife Board in a meeting chaired by Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray. In early 2021, he called for the formation of a Technical Study Group Committee, which comprised forest officials and experts from actively engaged in management of human-leopard interactions, rescue and prevention efforts.

I was a part of this committee, and we were provided five mandates that included studying and analysing reasons behind leopard deaths and leopard-related human deaths. We were told to suggest possible solutions to reduce the number of incidents. We were also asked to analyse preparedness of the state forest department, enlist roles to be played by other governmental departments in mitigating conflicts and study the pros and cons of solutions implemented in other parts of the country.

Statewide leopard population estimation studies (outside protected forest areas) have not been actively engaged in due to the challenges in conducting them, but it is apparent that changing land-use patterns and ample availability of food (mainly free-ranging dogs and livestock) have led to an increasing number of leopards breeding and thriving in human-dominated landscapes.


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Conducting reunions an uphill task

It is a common occurrence for farmers to find leopard cubs while harvesting their crop and these are generally first reported to the local forest department. Thereafter, local forest department teams engage in reuniting these cubs with their mothers, sometimes with help from local rescue organisations or groups.

Conducting reunions of infant and juvenile wild animals with their mothers is a process that has greatly changed and developed over the years. The process can be challenging for several reasons. To begin with, convincing locals to cooperate is difficult because they are already fearful of large carnivores. This is often tackled through conversations and community awareness programmes with the aim to promote human-wildlife coexistence and educate individuals about safely living around leopards. Several innovative tools and videos have been developed for this purpose.

Other challenges include preparing the reunion set-up and site well in time and keeping in mind the ‘reunion critical time window’ for higher success rates. While newer methods of conducting reunions, monitoring and documenting them have been systematically developed, the challenges of luring the mother to her cubs without her feeling threatened, ensuring there is no disturbance during the process, and monitoring the infants to ensure that they are not attacked by free-ranging domestics or other wild animals are some of the factors that are site-specific. Falling short in any one of these can result in reunion failure.

Sometimes, you could do everything right and try everything you know, and yet a reunion may fail because there are always so many factors unknown. Maybe the mother didn’t show up at the reunion site because she did not feel safe revisiting a disturbed location or maybe she was attacked by another animal as she ventured into new territory. In March 2022, Nashik Forest Department and the Eco Echo Foundation conducted reunions for over 30 cubs. They were all successful except for one. They made attempts with this litter for 12 days but there was absolutely no sign of the mother. While the teams were feeding the three cubs of that litter and continuing to attempt locating the mother, one of the cubs began losing health. The three cubs were then transferred to RESQ in Pune for medical care and rehabilitation.

Alert in hiding, a young male leopard peeks at his siblings playing from behind his safe rock at RESQ Wildlife TTC | Neha Panchamia
Alert in hiding, a young male leopard peeks at his siblings playing from behind his safe rock at RESQ Wildlife TTC | Neha Panchamia

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What next?

It’s been a few weeks since they arrived at RESQ. They’ve regained health and are now completely fit and active. As per protocol, they will be transferred to a zoo or rescue centres that can provide them lifetime care. As per Schedule 3 (7) of Rule 10 of Recognition of Zoo Rules, 2009, no zoo shall accept any rescued animal unless it has appropriately designed enclosure and upkeep facilities for the animal as well as facilities for keeping it in isolation during the quarantine period. With virtually no possibility of releasing them back in the wild, and the struggle to find space for them in the zoos and rescue centres of Maharashtra, their future looks bleak.

The National Human-Wildlife Conflict Mitigation Strategy and Action Plan (HWC-NAP) for India, published by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in 2021, presents a framework to mainstream HWC mitigation through policies, plans and programmes, However, there is no management plan guiding state forest departments on how to handle the overwhelming load of animals that end up captive due to human-wildlife conflict situations.

I stare at the leopards in front of me, who are about two months old now, and my mind is clouded by the number of derecognised zoos in Maharashtra and the number of facilities that exist but are unable to take these cubs in due to lack of resources.

As I oscillate between mixed feelings of wonder and disappointment, I think to myself if these cubs were of any other species, or one not considered ‘too high conflict to be reintroduced into the wild’, they would be undergoing a very different form of rehabilitation programme at RESQ. I know we could raise them to be wild, but where in India would we ever be able to release them safely?

While population control interventions for conflict species is highly debated, setting up more zoos and rescue centres is possibly looked at as the next best and achievable solution, but truly, is it? Creating infrastructure and allocating funds is only half the challenge. The other half is long-term operations of these facilities and ensuring captive animal welfare. Management practices are detailed by the Central Zoo Authority but there is a dearth of skilled human resource and funding. Wild animal care and welfare is not just dependent on veterinarians (the majority of whom have minimal knowledge of wildlife) but on having experienced wildlife managers, rehabilitators, and access to quality wildlife care supplies. Largely unchecked, there are merely a handful who manage to do justice to providing the minimum standards of captive animal welfare.

The Indian Leopard is but one species that is part of an ever-growing list of conflict species deemed into lifetime captivity. Rescuing and rehabilitating individual animals can cost similar to what could be spent on protecting habitats and other conservation initiatives, which can save far more animals at a time. However, considering our context and the challenges we face today, maybe it is time to consider other options, including putting resources into amplifying wildlife rehabilitation and reintroduction programs. Like others, it must evade no objective audits and have increased accountability to assess the proportion of rehabilitated animals that go on to survive, rejoin wild populations or breed successfully after being released. A few isolated attempts or failures from the past are not indicative whether it can be a promising option to manage animals that have a potential to be rewilded.

There is a pressing need to rehabilitate and release individual animals proactively – they’re better off getting a second chance at survival than spending their lifetime in captivity and burdening a system that is already crumbling without respite.

As for these leopard cubs, the possibility of them getting a second chance towards life in the wild is slim. If there existed a protected area and policies that favoured the study of reintroducing and monitoring of captive raised leopards, they could have stood a chance. Until then, assisting in building capacity and ameliorating captive wildlife rehabilitation standards and care are the only avenues to focus efforts on.

Neha Panchamia is Founder and President, RESQ Charitable Trust. She tweets @NehaPanchamia. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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