Man-eating tigers, marauding leopards: the role of people in Human-wildlife conflict

We often talk about man-eating tigers, marauding leopards, rogue elephants– but not of the role people have in creating conflict with wildlife.

In human-animal conflicts, there is little reflection on the role of people in inciting a wild animal

Anyone scanning the headlines for the past month would conclude that India is in the throes of irrevocable human-wildlife conflict. In this time period, a tiger was crushed by a JCB machine near Corbett while a mob screamed on, a leopard was burnt in Sariska by a crowd which also stoned forest department personnel, and a 33-member herd of elephants is being teased daily by a mob in Athgarh, Odisha.

Close encounters

In the encounters between a wild animal and a group of people, there are casualties on both sides. The question is, is conflict truly irrevocable? In several cases of conflict this year, it has been noted that groups of people have prevented the forest department from carrying out its duties. Rather than only focussing on a wild, snarling animal, a greater understanding of crowd dynamics is also called for.

A group of people is often defined as a mob if the group becomes unruly or aggressive. One must also consider if the mob has a collective conscience or whether it simply follows the cues by leaders within it. How it gets composed, and what it wants are also important.

After a leopard entered a school in Bengaluru last year, a group of about 5,000 people surrounded the school. The fact that it is dangerous to be in the vicinity of a panicked leopard is belied only by the absurdity of the fact that most wanted to see the animal and take pictures. In the case of elephants in Athgarh, conservationists have documented a mob of people attacking the elephants almost daily. Activists say this is a form of entertainment for the people concerned, as the elephants are not always harming people. While there is potential for serious conflict or injury, the mob also feels safe in its numbers.

Other mobs that have gathered around wildlife have clamoured for instant ‘justice’, gratification or resolution — in the form of killing the animal, beheading it, or parading it after its death. In Sariska last month, a leopard, blamed for killing a man, was burnt alive; the mob also hurt forest department officials. In a case last November, a leopard was bludgeoned to death in Mandawar, Haryana. The symbolic control of an animal by killing it and then parading the carcass has not escaped judicial attention. A December order of the Uttarakhand High Court said that if animals were (legally) put down, their dead bodies could not be displayed or shown in the media.

But in perhaps the most visceral and tragic human-wildlife conflict of recent times, a tiger was crushed by a JCB near Corbett after a mob demanded ‘justice’ for deaths. Two people from a labour camp working in forests near Corbett died after being reportedly attacked by the tiger. The forest department was caught in a human conflict situation — a crowd of people did not allow officials to do their difficult job of catching the tiger. The terrain was undulating. In its haste, the forest department brought in a JCB to capture the animal. The JCB attempted to ‘pick up’ the tiger, akin to sandpaper being used to snatch up a protesting butterfly. The results were gruesome — the tiger was hit repeatedly by the JCB, and crushed to death, all part of its ‘rescue’. In a video made documenting this, one can clearly hear a group of people around the animal, with a voice shouting “dabao, dabao” (press it down).

Human-human conflict

The Corbett story is telling. When going into an area inhabited by an obligate carnivore like a tiger, very few precautions are taken. Most labour camps are not provided with protocol, proper toilets, or monitoring to avoid work in the early morning or late night, and to move about only in groups.

Many cases of conflict or aggression towards animals are exacerbated by carelessness and existing human-human conflict or tensions. The question is also linked to control and which groups or classes are interested in being dominant. In 2012, when a tiger was spotted near Lucknow, members and volunteers of the Samajwadi Party declared they would catch it. This was framed as ‘public interest’. Needless to add, one needs training, not bravado, to catch a wild tiger.

The discourse around a wild animal, especially as it comes closer to people or human habitation, is that it is a criminal, a rogue, a stray, or a killer. There is, however, very little reflection on the role of people in inciting a wild animal.

We need proper cordoning off of areas when wildlife comes close to people, with animal capture being done with full police involvement and not just with a helpless forest department. We need investigations and action against groups that deliberately incite a panicked wild animal. To not do so would be to allow future situations to become even more dangerous; and to privilege revenge over solutions.

A general mob mentality is on the rise in India. Mobs are involved in attacks related to race, food preferences, and various forms of moral policing. In the face of such ‘mobocracy’, does wildlife stand a chance?

This first appeared in The Hindu.


Leopard in an Indian school: leopard yes, attack, no!

Last Sunday, a leopard skulked into a school in Bangalore. This was not a back-of-beyond place, or an unheard of school. This was the heart of things: a leopard in a school, located in prosperous Karnataka’s capital, the hub for many of India’s conservationists.

The leopard was unable to leave the school, Vibgyor school, and the ‘rescue’ lasted 10 hours. Following this incident, it is reported that more than 100 schools shut in Bangalore, all of them seeing or fearing leopards. In Vibgyor, three people were injured, and what of the leopard? By the end of the day, there were 5000 people gathered there. Some press reports called it a ‘ten-hour leopard attack’, but is that fair?

Last Sunday, a leopard entered a school in Bangalore; was trapped in it, surrounded by people.

Now let me change the narrative.

Last Sunday, a wild leopard entered a school in Bangalore; went on a frenzied rampage and attacked people.

Leopard attack
Wildlife conservationist Sanjay Gubbi being attacked by the leopard during the rescue op in Vibgyor school.

Both statements have totally different interpretations. The first says that a leopard entered a school and could not leave because of the number of people; the second suggests the leopard did not want to leave, that it purposely wanted to attack people.

This is what happened: on Sunday, a leopard presumably from Bangalore’s Bannerghatta forest, entered a school, Vibgyor International. Knowing there was a leopard on the premises, people gathered, and by the end of it, there were scores of people, and tv and press cameras on the spot. The forest department sent in a rescue team.

The disoriented and cornered leopard was rescued after ten long hours, and in the process at least three people were injured.

Where did we go wrong? In the absence of the animal not knowing what is wrong and right, authorities went very wrong in not controlling people from getting in on the site. Wildlife conservationists had suggested just giving the animal safe passage so it could leave. They also suggested imposing Section 144 which prevents more than ten people from assembling. This, however was not followed.

Several amateur videos of the leopard have emerged, because so many people were allowed in to the sight, watching the leopard with the curiosity of a circus spectacle.

Here are some of the national and international headlines:

‘Leopard rampages through school, attacks six’- The Express Tribune

‘Wild leopard wreaks havoc, mauls six in Bangalore school rampage’-Sydney Morning Herald

‘Leopard attack in school’- CNN

Others say, “wild leopard breaks into high school, mauls 6”, “leopard attacks” and so on. The word “rampage” is commonly used. Any person reading these headlines would be convinced the leopard is a hardened, fastidious criminal, with a forceful intent to attack. It decides to break into a high school to unleash a rampage. It’s bloodthirsty, lean and mean.

A bit like the “jaws and claws” beasts which land starring roles in “creature feature” films: the ones that feature ravenous, sky-darkening vampire bats, furious sharks, mad-eyed mammals, and crocodiles on chase.

A bit like this:


But we can’t choose a criminal without understanding its drivers. Catching a leopard is like a military operation. It requires training, presence of mind, secured perimeters, and privacy. Just like people would not be allowed to clamber into an Army op, for the sake of both man and beast, only professionals – in this case the forest departments team of experts – should be in a capture site.

The leopard was cornered, people with no knowledge of leopards (including press people) were shouting, several tranquiliser gun shots were missed, and the drama continued for an entire day. The results are headlines and stories that show fear, terror, drama with little reflection on human interference during the day.

While this episode is over, and the leopard and the people are safe, this teaches us two lessons. One, rescue operations need to be done with equipment, standard operation procedures, and with the complete absence of a watching, shouting, untrained crowd.

Two, headlines and narratives need to stop criminalising animals, who are often victims of our bullying behaviour and habitat encroachment. Animals really don’t know better than to attack when surrounded, and they have not read our laws. Surely, the leopard deserves alternate headlines?

Twitter had a few:


Perhaps the most telling impression, that the leopard is not actually a murderous criminal, comes from Sanjay Gubbi, the conservationist who sustained grave injuries during the operation. Gubbi has released a statement on the incident, and not once does he blame the leopard.

“To all my friends, family, media and well-wishers. Since yesterday evening I have received hundreds of messages and calls enquiring about my health. I have had multiple bite marks – nearly 30 on right thigh and arm. There is a chipped bone in the elbow, muscle tear in triceps. I have had the first step surgery last night and have moved out of intensive care unit. However I have to spend few days in hospital with a further surgery planned later this week. I am unable to use my hands to receive phones or text you. I am grateful for all the support given by friends, family, well-wishers and media. This is typed by my wife at my request. Hope you all understand. Many thanks..”

And perhaps the most “biting satire” comes from this cartoon by Satish Acharya:


Can we give the leopard, and many of India’s leopards an alternative narrative?

But we are the same country that arrested a goat as a “repeat offender” for snacking on a District Magistrate’s lawn. It would help if we would stop playing cops and robbers and let the forest department do its job. Also, job applications for Common Sense without Sensationalism are invited.

(This first appeared in DailyO)

I also did a TV interview on the issue, which you can watch here:

What do you think of this entire incident? Please leave your comments below.


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