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Pigs and rabbits on leopard plate

Mumbai, June 29: Fifty pigs and 50 rabbits were today pushed into the Sanjay Gandhi National Park on the northern fringes of Mumbai as cannon fodder in the battle between man and animal.

Sources in the forest department said there were plans to release stray dogs too in a bid to deter the 35-odd leopards roaming the 103-sq km sanctuary from targeting human beings.

The desperate measure — likely to be a first in the history of any sanctuary — is being implemented after the leopards hunted 17 human beings this year, an all time high, including 12 in June alone.

Additional chief secretary (forests) Ashok Khot, who oversaw the operation in early afternoon, said the pigs and rabbits would stop the leopards from straying into human habitations. He did not agree that the food chain in the forest had been disrupted. “There is enough prey for the leopards here,” he said. “The pigs and rabbits are there only to supplement the hunt.”

Environmentalists have scoffed at the forest department’s plan of action. “You might as well open a McDonald’s counter inside the forest,” a wildlife expert said. The move is fraught with risks and contradictions. Wildlife activists refused to buy the forest officials’ logic of the pigs and rabbits acting as shields for humans, saying the “food” would barely last the leopards for a week.

More important, if stray dogs are released, they would sidle up to the settlements in and around the park, undermining the attempt to keep the leopards away from humans.

They are also worried about plans of the national park authorities to relocate some of the trapped leopards in other forest areas like Tadoba in Chandrapur district and Melghat in Amravati.

“Leopards have very strict notions of territory and fight others who encroach on their space,” a volunteer at the national park said. “The leopards thrown in a different forest get into fresh fights for territory. Many get injured, some even die.” And injured predators are sometimes worse as they find humans easy prey.

Khot argued that the “single big reason for leopards attacking human beings is the illegal encroachment in forest areas”. “There are 65,000 people living in forest land. Where are the leopards supposed to go' These people, in turn, bring along with them domesticated dogs, fowl and cats, making it easier for leopards to inch towards human habitation. Leopards usually don’t venture outside their territory,” he said.

The forest department hopes some of its other plans like solar-powered low-intensity electrical fencing, a 22-km wall near the core area and radio-collaring the animals to monitor their movements would bear fruit.

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