Water wars, sugarcane and the adaptability of big cats

Wednesday, Apr 3, 2013

Jay Mazoomdaar

Water wars, sugarcane and the adaptability of big cats
Water wars, sugarcane and the adaptability of big cats

It makes for fascinating stories when large carnivores, such as tigers and leopards, cope with changes we make to natural landscapes.

It makes for fascinating stories when large carnivores, such as tigers and leopards, cope with changes we make to natural landscapes. While the amazing adaptability of these animals helps them make the most of such situations, the stories more often than not end in tragedies.

As Maharashtra faces its worst drought in four decades, the man-made nature of the calamity is getting clearer every day. The sugar belt largely overlaps with the state’s driest areas. In 1955-56, sugarcane was grown on 9% of the irrigated land and consumed 58% of the total irrigated water. In 2009-10, the crop grew on 16% of the irrigated area and drew 76% of the water.

This madness has been defended by successive state governments on the pretext that sugarcane is the lifeline of Maharashtra’s agro-economy. Since half of the state cabinet own sugar mills and sugarcane fields, the lifeline also extends to the state’s political economy. To the list of beneficiaries, one can also add the leopards that have found a safe haven in those green fields.

Sugarcane plants offer dense cover and the crop is harvested in batches at long intervals, ensuring months of uninterrupted privacy. A flourishing population of leopards hides in these fields during the day and lifts easy prey, such as dogs, pigs, goats or chicken, from adjacent villages and towns in the night. While man-animal conflict is not rare, people usually do not bother as long as the animals remain out of sight.

The sugarcane leopards of Maharashtra remind me, so to speak, of the mustard tigers of Rajasthan. In 2010, a tiger that had recently fathered two cubs was picked up from Ranthambhore and dispatched to repopulate Sariska that had lost all tigers to poaching. The stupid move by the forest department meant that the mother of his cubs would now have to protect the young ones all by herself against other males looking to mate with her.

In the winter of 2010-2011, trying to evade a mighty suitor, the single mother moved out of the tiger reserve and took refuge with her two cubs in the cropland recently carved out of the Chambal ravines. The forest department deployed eight men to track the tigers daily and warn the farmhands to keep off till the animals moved away to another field.

Checking the landscape for pugmarks one late January morning with this team, we wandered within 10 yards of the family hidden under the mustard and red gram crop that stood three to four feet tall. The result was a mock charge with persistent roars and instant scattering of the forest staff and farmhands alike. But the tigress held her nerve and broke off in time.

Timely compensation for the cow kills, a near real-time warning system and some luck ensured that there was no conflict during the family’s three-month stay till the mustard was harvested in March. But poachers were probably waiting for the opportunity and the semi-adult cubs went missing during April-May. The big cats would have been safer had the intricate gullies of the ravine not been flattened into cropland.

While the leopards of Goregaon make frequent headlines, I am guilty of denying the leopards of Gurgaon one such opportunity. Back in 2005, accompanying veteran conservationist Anne Wright to check on an unlikely hyena knocked down by a car at a stone’s throw from Gurgaon’s busy mall district, I stumbled upon evidence of a resident leopard or two nearby.

A few hours of trekking up and down the Aravali-turned-farmhouses landscape helped us interview around 15 caretakers who looked after the properties for their absentee owners, gather numerous accounts of dog lifting and spot distinct canine marks on a recent survivor. One particular watchman even assured us of a photo opportunity if we visited a rock mound regularly a few evenings.
Since most missing dogs were not pedigreed and belonged to the staff, no owner took the rumours of neighbourhood leopards seriously. A newspaper report, on the other hand, would have announced the presence of the big cats to the enthusiasts, the intolerant and the business-minded alike. I resisted the temptation with some effort, much to the appreciation of Anne who until then was rather disappointed that someone younger than her daughter Belinda struggled to climb the slopes.

The leopards remained hidden for three years. Early in 2008, I heard “a leopard family that strayed from Rajasthan’s Alwar or Ranthambhore” was spotted around those farmhouses in Gurgaon’s Sohna. The first one was trapped in March. Since then, at least another three have been caught from these farmhouses which eat into the leopard’s hilly habitat but also offer a steady supply of dogs. Would the leopards be better off struggling for food in a less crowded Aravali? At the very least, there would not be so many heavyweights lobbying for their removal.

It is anybody’s guess how the story of the sugarcane leopards will pan out. Given the looming water wars, it is unlikely that even brazen political backing will be able to sustain the sugarcane crop for too long. So what happens to these leopards when the sugarcane crop disappears? Before irrigation converted this arid landscape into sugarcane fields, wolf packs roamed these areas. As wet cropland advanced, the wolves retreated to the remaining dry areas outside the irrigation map.

But the sugarcane leopards may not be as lucky as the wolves. There may not be enough sugarcane fields left to retreat to once the crop is eventually refused its absurd share of water. It is unlikely that so many animals will be able to adapt to the abrupt exposure. Will they shift to small patches of prey-deficient protected forests nearby? Or risk conflict by continuing to live among people for easy prey? Either way, looks like another tragedy is in the offing. Source DNA

The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi.
Views expressed are personal.


Published: Zarai Media Team

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