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26.10.10

It's hiding in bushes, avoiding humans, yet running close to habitations with dogs - perhaps completely oblivious to the fact that wildlife officials are hot on its trail. This is the first time a wild animal, a female leopard at that, is being tracked in Himachal Pradesh with the help of the Global Positioning System (GPS).

The state wildlife department is monitoring the fully grown leopard on the outskirts of Shimla through the satellite-based system to study the reasons for its straying into human habitation.

"To study its behavioural pattern and reasons for straying into human habitation, we have installed a radio collar on the leopard. This was the first time any wild animal in the state was tracked this way," Chief Wildlife Warden AK Gulati told IANS.

The wildlife wing trapped the leopard last month in Paoba village on the outskirts of Shimla and released it after placing a radio collar around its neck.

"We have noticed that the leopard generally moves within a territory of 16 sq km. A number of villages are located in its territory. Sometimes it comes close to villages probably to hunt stray dogs and livestock. But most of the time, it remains deep inside the jungle. This shows that the prey-predator ratio is quite good there," Gulati said.

Two radio collars, each costing Rs. 200,000, were provided to the wildlife wing by a Pune-based NGO Waghoba Trust. The NGO is tracking a few leopards in Maharashtra using the same technology. The radio collar, weighing 1.5 kg, will remain on the animal's neck for a year, after which its magnetic locks will open and the leopard will be able to free itself.

Sandeep Rattan, a veterinary surgeon who installed the collar, told IANS, "We can retrieve the collar where it falls. After recharging its batteries, it can be installed again on some other animal."

Based on the information provided by the GPS, Rattan went to the forest around Paoba village to study the animal's behavioural pattern. Most of the time, the leopard was just a few feet away from him.

"We have noticed that the leopard mostly stays away from humans. It prefers to hide in bushes and changes its path as it comes closer to the humans," Rattan said.

In most cases, he said, the leopard was found close to villages with a sizeable population of dogs - both domesticated and stray.

Though the leopard is protected under Schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, it is occasionally poached for its skin. Sometimes, it's also killed by farmers to protect their livestock.

According to the wildlife department, 186 cases of leopard attacks were reported in the state in 2008-09, an all-time high. The figure was 34 for 2007-08, 38 for 2006-07 and 17 for 2005-06.

Thirteen people, mostly women and children, have been killed by leopards in the past five years.

The situation is most acute in Bilaspur, Hamirpur, Mandi and Kangra districts and parts of Kullu, Shimla, Sirmaur and Solan districts.

According to the last census conducted in 2004, the state's leopard population stood at 761.


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