Doomed holes for distressed felines
Uncovered wells spell doom for leopards and other wildlife in Maharashtra. Here is an account of the recent rescue of a three-year-old leopard from an uncovered well.
In an all too familiar scenario in India, open wells and uncovered water tanks dotting buffer areas continue to pose a threat to animals residing close by. Several instances of leopards falling into wells have been reported over the last few years in Maharashtra and many others in states like Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Assam. The startling increase in the rate of habitat encroachment has resulted in decreasing prey base, territory and water sources for predator species like leopards, that are then forced to come out into human habitation. Since these elusive cats usually prefer to move around at night, it is common for them to accidentally slip into the uncovered wells. It is not just leopards, a species protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, that are vulnerable to these wells, but also several other species that may fall in these doomed holes, with potentially fatal results, such as nilgai, civet cats, porcupines and small jungle cats.
Wildlife SOS, a wildlife conservation NGO is dedicating their efforts to protect and conserve the leopard population in Maharashtra. They are currently operating the Manikdoh Leopard Rescue Centre (MLRC) in Junnar, near Pune in collaboration with the forest department. For years, they have been efficiently managing and mitigating the Man-Leopard conflict in the region and continue to raise awareness across villages and residential areas which are prone to such conflict situations. Leopards frequently become victims of these uncovered wells in this belt. The centre, on an average, rescues two to three leopards caught in conflict situations or trapped in wells monthly. This is a challenging task and leopards are at fatal risk of drowning if not rescued in time or sustaining injuries that make them unfit to live in the wild.
Earlier in October, in an unexpected turn of events, a 7-year-old female leopard found herself on the verge of drowning in a 30-foot-deep open well in Yadavwadi village located in Otur range. A local farmer, who approached the well to turn on the motor pump, as part of his morning routine was startled to see the helpless eyes of the trapped animal staring up at him from the well. Fearing that it may not survive much longer in the waist deep water, he immediately alerted the forest department, who in turn called Wildlife SOS.
The NGO’s rescue team made no delay and geared up for the 40-kilometre drive from Junnar to the erst-mentioned location to save the leopardess. In the meantime, a team of forest officers with the help of the villagers, lowered a wooden ladder into the well to provide a temporary support to the terror-struck cat, who clambered onto the provisional platform instantly in order to stay suspended. Once the team arrived at the scene, a trap cage was lowered into the well, it’s open door angled towards the leopard. Almost grateful for a dry spot to move onto, the leopard jumped into the cage and was carefully lifted out of the well and was taken to the Manikdoh Leopard Rescue Centre for observation and any treatment if required.
Just a week later, the organisation was alerted to another incident of a 3-year-old female leopard trapped inside a well in Gulunchwadi village in Otur. On finding the majestic feline in peril, the concerned locals immediately contacted the Forest Department who in turn alerted Wildlife SOS.
A five-member rescue team led by Wildlife SOS Senior veterinarian Dr. Ajay Deshmukh, accompanied by six forest officers rushed to the location. A quick assessment of the well revealed that the nearly 50-foot-deep well was connected to an adjoining well at the bottom. This made things rather complicated as the leopard kept scrambling frantically from one end to the other in panic. A trap cage was lowered down the well in hopes that the leopard would jump right in. However, the sight of the unfamiliar metal box caused the petrified animal to run and hide inside a narrow crevice between the two wells. The only other alternative now was for the team to physically go down the well and tranquilise the leopard from close proximity. Having years of experience on their hands, Dr. Ajay Deshmukh & Wildlife SOS Veterinary Assistant. Mahendra Dhore bravely stepped into the trap cage with necessary gear and tranquilising equipment, and were carefully lowered in. Once they had a clear visual, Dr. Ajay used a dart gun to sedate the leopard from inside the cage, while everyone watched in anticipation. The sedative kicked in within a few short minutes after which the duo transferred the animal into the cage. Soon after the Wildlife SOS team hopped into another trap cage and were safely pulled back up. The entire operation lasted almost four hours, after which the leopard was taken to the Manikdoh Leopard Rescue Centre. The young felid will be released back into the wild once she is given a clean bill of health.
In the last year alone, six leopards have been rescued by Wildlife SOS including a pair of leopard cubs that had the misfortune of falling into a 40-foot-deep well and were successfully reunited with their mother. In a more tragic incident, a pregnant leopard trapped in a 40-foot-deep well in Barwadi succumbed to her injuries, shortly after being rescued. These are just a few among thousands of animals that perish in uncovered wells every year in India.
Without the support and understanding of local communities, it is almost impossible to address the issue. What we need is holistic and sustainable solutions, where the locals are educated and made aware about the significance of this species and sensitized about the issue so that they cooperate with the forest department and Wildlife SOS in covering of the wells and water tanks, especially the ones that are at the periphery of human habitations, where it is most probable for the leopards to be present. Construction of safety walls around these wells is also a viable alternative.
In the last decade around 1,500 animals, including leopards, jackals, jungle cats, sambars and hyenas, have reportedly died after falling into open wells and uncovered water tanks, making these a growing threat to wildlife in Maharashtra. To sign the on-going petition by Wildlife SOS asking concerned authorities to fence areas around open wells or cover them so that the lives of many innocent animals and people can be saved, please visit here: http://bit.ly/2rbr7Kl
Cover Photo: Wildlife SOS senior vet Dr. Ajay Deshmukh & vet asst. Mahendra Dhore went down the well to tranquilise the leopard from close proximity
Read also: Gasping for breath – Mangroves of Panje
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