Leopard on the loose in north Indian city triggers panic

A leopard squeezes through a hole in the wall of the Meerut Cantonment Hospital as an official approaches in Meerut, on Feb 23, 2014. A leopard sparked panic in a north Indian city when it strayed inside a hospital, a cinema and an apartment blo
A leopard squeezes through a hole in the wall of the Meerut Cantonment Hospital as an official approaches in Meerut, on Feb 23, 2014. A leopard sparked panic in a north Indian city when it strayed inside a hospital, a cinema and an apartment block before evading captors, an official said on Monday. -- PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (AFP) - A leopard sparked panic in a north Indian city when it strayed inside a hospital, a cinema and an apartment block before evading captors, an official said on Monday.

Authorities closed schools in Meerut, 60km north-east of the Indian capital, after the leopard was discovered prowling the city's streets on Sunday, a senior city official said.

"Despite our best efforts, we have been unable to track the leopard down. We have launched a massive hunt for the beast," said additional district magistrate S.K. Dubey.

The cat was found inside an empty ward of an army hospital on Sunday before wildlife officers were called and managed to fire a tranquiliser dart into the animal, Dubey told AFP.

"But despite that he managed to break (out through) the iron grills and escaped. He then sneaked into the premises of a cinema hall before entering an apartment block. After that we lost track of the cat," he said.

Authorities have urged the closure of markets in the city of 3.5 million people until the animal was captured, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.

A photograph in the Hindustan Times newspaper on Monday showed the leopard leaping off a terrace in a congested residential area of the city as people scrambled out of the way.

Last week, a leopard killed a five-year-old boy in central Chhattisgarh state, the latest in a string of incidents raising concerns about depleting habitats for the cats, which was forcing them into populated areas.

Alarming video footage from Mumbai last year showed a leopard creeping into an apartment block foyer and snatching a small dog, which it quickly drags away from the scene.

Meanwhile, a tiger on the prowl in northern Uttar Pradesh state since last December is believed to have killed some 10 people, with wildlife officials still trying to hunt it down.

WWF called for better management of forests and other habitats for India's leopard population which numbered 1,150 at the 2011 census.

"Leopards are large territorial mammals, they need space to move around. Some of their corridors are getting blocked so there is bound to be an interface," Mr Deepankar Ghosh of WWF-India told AFP.

"We can't put all the leopards into cages. We can't remove all the people living near forested areas. We have to manage the situation the best way we can."

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