The Telegraph
Thursday , March 21 , 2013
Since 1st March, 1999
CIMA Gallary

Big cat out of the bag
Leopard smoked out in ingenious mission

It took 10 bravehearts — with presence of mind as their only defence — 11 long hours to cage an adult male leopard that had strayed from Latehar-Palamau forests into Harra village, 45km from Ranchi, and mauled a farmer on Tuesday afternoon.

After rounds of trial and error, the team of foresters and Birsa zoo officials did rescue the nine-year-old feral feline, nicknamed Rowdy, but their prolonged operation has exposed a myopic Jharkhand forest department’s rusted armour against man-animal conflicts.

The big cat was the third intruder this year, after jumbo visitors at the Dipatoli army camp on January 1 and at Sikidiri and Chutupalu last week, but the department is callousness epitomised when it comes to planning and infrastructure for wildlife rescue missions.

Here’s how individual resolve saved the day when administrative efficiency fell flat on its face

The scare

The clock said 1pm and it was like any other pre-summer afternoon at nondescript Harra, on the fringes of Palamau-Latehar forests. Shiv Gope was working in his farm. Suddenly, there was a flash of yellow and he felt a searing pain on his left arm. It took the 20-year-old few seconds to realise he had been attacked by a leopard. Quite instinctively, the youth grabbed a stick lying nearby and thrust it at the animal. Luckily for him, other villagers too spotted the big cat about the same time and raised an alarm. The stealthy predator spared his prey and sneaked into an empty mud house through a hole in the wall. Villagers blocked the opening and informed the forest department

The challenge

Outgoing Ranchi DFO Y.K. Das and nine others — including zoo vet A.K. Singh and his compounder, two assistant conservators of forests, two rangers and four zoo workers — hurried to Harra. By then, it was 3pm.

What initially seemed a regular animal trapping exercise, soon turned out to be an utterly difficult mission.

“We were told that the leopard is locked in a room and we knew it wouldn’t be a tough task to cage it. When we reached the spot, things were very different. One, the house had three rooms and the animal was on the move inside. Two, the area was teeming with curious villagers and it wasn’t easy to plan things,” said zoo vet Singh.

The team also realised that the sun would go down soon and they did not have high-powered torches, let alone protective gear. A tranquilliser gun was handy, but they did not have orders to use it! The challenge was to bring the animal out with a rope and sticks

The waiting game

For hours, the team circled the house, making noises with sticks to direct the leopard towards the cage, which was fixed at one of the doors. Success eluded them till 11pm.

“We couldn’t do much because we had no gear to tackle the situation. As hours went by, it got darker and darker, and the crowd kept swelling. This was like double whammy. A small mistake on our part could allow the leopard to escape and attack people. We knew patience alone could sail us through the predicament. So, we waited,” said Das.

The team made plans and scrapped plans for two hours till they zeroed in on one

The risky venture

Around half past 1am, three intrepid zoo officials — Etwa Oraon, Dhuma Ram and Brejendra Singh — entered the mud house with lathis and torches, while two others climbed on the rooftop.

“The plan was too release smoke crackers from above and lead the suffocating animal into the cage. There were two big worries — the house could collapse under pressure and the animal could attack. It was a do-or-die situation and we had to risk it,” said Singh

The final rescue

The crackers were released one after another till all the three rooms were engulfed in dense smoke. Torchlights helped the trio inside keep the leopard in sight. The plan was primitive, but it worked.

“Slowly, the leopard moved towards the cage-fitted door. As it stepped in, there was a bit of a snag and the clamp came down. The animal got stuck midway and had to be given one final push with sticks so that it didn’t escape. Around 1.30am, he was safely in our custody,” said a forest official

Last lesson

Glad at what they had achieved, the foresters rued their department’s lack of professionalism.

“Ideally, the department should have a proper state-level rescue team. These operations require protective gear like metal jackets, boots, helmets, high-intensity torches, masks, arm shields, et al. All we had were blinking torches and sticks. We were asked not to use tranquillisers because higher officials feared the animal would either become ferocious or die, which is but sheer lack of know-how,” a member of Team Courage said.

He warned that the mission might not end in their favour the next time.