This past Saturday, a leopard wandered into a school building in Dhirenpara—an area of Assam, India, where it mauled four people. Forest officials believe the leopard was taking shelter for the night while in search of prey.
Workers encountered the leopard early Sunday morning upon entering the building to do construction. The four who were injured were then admitted to Gauhati Medical College Hospital, and have all survived the encounter.
The incident calls attention to the problem of deforestation in India, and what it will mean for the relationship between leopards—currently classified as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, and people living near the border of their natural habitat. (Read about how leopards are dealing with human encroachment on their habitat.)
“It’s not the first time this has happened and it won’t be the last,” says big cat biologist Alexander Braczkowski. “When people continue to encroach on forests it’s only going to get worse.”
There are 18 hills that surround the city of Guwahati, the largest city of Assam in Northeast India. Their foothills, which used to be covered by old growth forest, are now largely replaced by non-native pine trees that were planted with the intention to be cut by the British in the 18th century. With no understory to hide behind or burrow under, leopards are finding it increasingly difficult to find natural prey to hunt. (Read about how leopards have lost three-fourths of their territory.)
“There’s no food for these animals,” says National Geographic photographer Steve Winter, who lived in Assam for six months photographing and learning about leopards. “Once in a while one will come down into a village at night, primarily looking for street dogs and other domestic livestock, and when the sun comes up they’re stuck and don’t have a way out.”
Another problem for leopards who get stuck in the city, Winter says, is the sheer number of people there and the madness of an ensuing mob mentality. As news of the incident spread, panic in the Dhirenpara area made it increasingly difficult for Assam State Zoo’s veterinary team to tranquilize the big cat, who was agitated by developing crowds. (Watch a video about a man who is called The Leopard Whisperer.)
The effort took around an hour and a half, Assam State Zoo’s divisional forest officer Tejas Mariswamy tells Times of India. “Large gatherings of onlookers are indeed a problem in such operations. The animal became stressed and got agitated, complicating our operation,” says Mariswamy.
The leopard, which zoo officials have said is a fully-grown healthy adult, was tranquilized with darts and taken to the zoo, but not before sustaining minor injuries while trying to escape the crowds of onlookers.