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How the leopard became one of India's most adaptable big cats

Wildlife ecologist Sanjay Gubbi draws on his expertise and years of field experience to tell the story of the elusive leopard in India

Representational image.
Representational image. (Unsplash)

I wrote this piece sitting in a stone cottage in the oak forests of Uttarakhand. The leopard exists here—one passed by our neighbourhood the previous night. I’m also based in India’s millennial city, Gurugram, where a few patches of the Aravalli forests mark the remnants of wilderness in the city. Many are surprised to learn that wild leopards are found here, too, amidst geographies of concrete and steel. This is the story of the leopard in India: supremely adaptable, hard to spot, living in the shadows, but continuing to survive.

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Leopard Diaries: The Rosette in India is a new collection of writings on the leopard by wildlife ecologist Sanjay Gubbi. As a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Gubbi has spent close to a decade studying leopards and working for their conservation in his home state of Karnataka. His book reads like a memoir of a professional life spent studying the leopard—its distribution, ecology, behaviour and coexistence with other predators—while also managing human-leopard conflict situations (once, at great personal cost).

The core of the book draws from 10 years of the author’s field research in Karnataka, from camera-trapping exercises and radio telemetry to wildlife distribution surveys. The leopard is one of the most adaptable cats in the world, and we are introduced to it through Gubbi’s encounters in a variety of landscapes: from hillocks and scrub forests, rocky outcrops, crop plantations, villages, on the edges of cities, by highways, and even inside a school. Each chapter pieces together bits of their secretive lives—how they evolved, how they mate and communicate, which habitats they prefer, the threats they face, and what lies in their future.

Gubbi and his team conducted occupancy surveys in southern Karnataka, walking nearly 3,000 km and covering 23,900 sq. km. quantifying signs of leopards and other wildlife. This activity threw up several insights into the secret lives of leopards. Gubbi estimated there may be about 2,500 individuals in Karnataka. In accessible prose, he also covers ground well beyond the biology of the animal, weaving in his observations about the changing nature of Karnataka’s geographies through a social, economic, and political lens, interpreting how these factors affect leopards and other wildlife.

Leopard Diaries: The Rosette in India by Sanjay Gubbi, Westland Books, 272 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599
Leopard Diaries: The Rosette in India by Sanjay Gubbi, Westland Books, 272 pages, 599

For instance, we learn that the rocky outcrops of the Deccan plateau are prime habitats for leopards, and other animals like sloth bears, hyenas, jackals, foxes, pangolins. But rapid agricultural expansion, and widespread mining for granite and iron ore due to demand from construction industries of Karnataka’s urban centres have desecrated this habitat.

For his research, Gubbi also surveyed the countryside of Bengaluru, where stray patches of scrub forests and rocky outcrops provide habitat for leopards. He recalls watching this land concretise into gated communities, golf courses and housing layouts. In the historic Chamundi Hills near Mysuru—a site where the author radio-collared and tracked leopards—forest land continues to be cleared to accommodate expanding linear infrastructure, housing and tourism demands of the city. While the author’s study recorded six leopards on this hill, two died in road accidents in the region.

The leopard’s case is especially complex because across India, wild leopard populations have been known to survive inside and on the outskirts of cities like Mumbai, Jaipur, Delhi, and Pune; in landscapes with high human population densities like plantations regions and sugarcane fields. They are far more adaptable than other big cats, even altering their diets to live on stray dogs, livestock or poultry. Throughout his career, Gubbi observed the rapid transformation of their habitat, and thus the changes in their behaviour, dietary habits, and proximity to people. He questions the extent to which their adaptability can lead to peaceful coexistence with people, arguing that preserving natural landscapes is still critical for conserving leopards.

Representational image.
Representational image. (Unsplash)

In a country like India, where people and wildlife share spaces, working to conserve the leopard requires navigating the fraught relationship it shares with people. Through several powerful first-hand accounts, Gubbi elaborates on how conflict situations can rapidly escalate, be mismanaged, and deeply affect both people and wildlife. One tragic example is from the Hebbur village of his home district Tumkuru, in a landscape with sprawling plantations of areca nut, coconut, banana, and other crops. Between 2019-20, a rapid spurt in human-leopard conflict there led to the tragic killing of several people by leopards, including two young children under the age of five.

The way this situation escalated is familiar for many instances of human-leopard conflict, exacting a cost on both people and wildlife: bereaved parents were left aghast, hundreds of people surrounded the local minister and accused the forest department of being insensitive to their tragedies. In response, the authorities hastily captured 12 leopards to assuage the community, but, Gubbi adds, these were not the two leopards that were suspected to be involved in this case. A few months later, there were more reports of people killed by leopards.

Between 2009-16, as Gubbi writes, an uptick in such human-wildlife conflicts led to 357 leopards being captured and over 85% of them being translocated across Karnataka. This is the story across leopard habitats in the state, and across India. Between 2009-20, he adds, 36 people died and 283 were injured in human-leopard confrontations in the state. Often in retaliation, communities, too, harm the animal, “[Leopards] are scalped, hacked, lit afire, bludgeoned with clubs for killing livestock, or, in some instances, for injuring people,” Gubbi writes.

Gubbi’s insights give a first-hand view into how pursuing environmental battles can be long and arduous... and the process may still be caught in bureaucratic hurdles for years

There are no simple, universal answers to prevent these tragedies, but Gubbi argues that preserving natural ecosystems is critical for leopard conservation. As a member of the State Board for Wildlife in Karnataka, he has worked with government officials and politicians for policy interventions, most notably the establishment of a 148 sq km woodland-savanna forest as the Chinkara Wildlife Sanctuary in Bukkapatna. Some of the most powerful parts of the book recount Gubbi’s behind-the-scenes efforts in implementing conservation action on the ground, providing insights into how the future of nature and wildlife depends on the goodwill of those in the corridors of power.

Gubbi’s insights give a first-hand view into how pursuing environmental battles can be long and arduous—how halting a disastrous infrastructural project in a natural landscape, or getting approval for a new conservation reserve, may depend on whether a local politician or forest officer believes in a cause—and the process may still be caught in bureaucratic hurdles for years.

Leopard Diaries speaks with wit, suspense, humour, and heart, providing a peek into the life of one of the world’s most elusive and persecuted wild cats. It compels the reader to share the author’s fascination as well as concern for this solitary animal. And above all, it informs the reader of the plethora of challenges that plague the cat’s survival in the 21st century, while also helping them appreciate how it still manages to survive.

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