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Earning their spot

Incidents of human-leopard conflicts are on the rise in urban India. There's much to learn from the way Mumbai dealt with its big cats

A leopard at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Photos: Nikit Surve
A leopard at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Photos: Nikit Surve

The leopards are coming. They are, literally, everywhere.

Last week, a news report said a Pakistani leopard had entered Punjab. Then a leopard strolled into Delhi. Others make news in Mumbai almost on a daily basis. When you slip out of the metros and head into the hinterland, you will hear of leopards in the croplands of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat, northern Uttar Pradesh, in the tea gardens of Assam and Tamil Nadu, in the rocky outcrops of Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh. Leopards appear to be all over India, surprising us with their tenacity. They bewilder biologists, administration and media alike, and are loved and feared by people.

Simply put, they just do not fall into the behavioural pattern expected of wild animals. As a young biologist, I too had my share of preconceived notions about wild animals in wild spaces and us, humans, in our space. This was reinforced by my training and by TV channels and publications like the National Geographic. So when I started working on leopards in the high-human density croplands of Ahmednagar a decade ago, I considered the presence of leopards unbelievable and scary.

What I found, however, completely changed my outlook towards wildlife in shared spaces. Leopards could be found in good numbers at the same density as another large predator, the hyena. They were breeding in the farmlands and, more surprisingly, people knew they were there. Their diet consisted largely of domestic animals, with dogs being the most common prey. More interestingly, they were mainly nocturnal, sitting through much of the day in small patches of tall crops.

Barking deer at the national park.

We had radio-collared a few leopards and I remember going to the middle of a sugar-cane field where one of our animals was resting (we knew from the signals from his collar). A farmer was watering the field in one corner and there were about 15 women in the next field, plucking tomatoes. I asked the farmer if he had seen leopards and he said he had, a few days earlier. I wondered what would happen if I told him that our collared animal was sitting just 30m away.

Quiet by day, leopards are the kings of the landscape by night. That is when no one is out on the roads in rural India—it’s an almost “wilderness" landscape from the perspective of wild animals living there. In fact, many of the farmer families I got to know during my work would call in the night and say that “he" was walking right past their house and did not even look left or right as they stood watching in the doorway. However, these leopards were never sighted during the day.

When the documentary Leopards: 21st Century Cats, was being filmed, Romulus Whitaker walked up to a large male leopard feeding on a carcass in the night, using a night-vision camera but no torch. He was just 40m away from the leopard, which looked at him but continued eating. Whitaker could see the leopard but the leopard may have thought he could not because there was no torch light. When Romulus and I went to the other side, about 100m away, with a torch (I was holding the torch while Romulus filmed the animal), the leopard slunk into the shrubbery.

Park director Anwar Ahmed speaks to visitors about the leopard scare.

So did he know we could see him by torch light but not otherwise?

We know very little about these nocturnal, extremely shy and secretive animals, and this tends to cause more fear than is necessary.

Quiet by day, leopards are the kings of the landscape by night. That is when no one is out on the roads in rural India—it’s an almost ‘wilderness’ landscape from the perspective of wild animals living there-

Wildlife in human-use areas is as old as humans in India—what is relatively new is our perception of where wildlife should be. Our analysis of published literature on large cat studies in India found that almost all the research related to large cats has been carried out inside protected areas, where the density of humans is very low. This knowledge isn’t useful when you’re dealing with wildlife in spaces that have a high density of humans. Essentially then, we don’t know what to do when we find leopards in our rural or urban landscapes.

What’s more, as geographer Frédéric Landy stated in a publication, leopards disregard the physical spaces we designate for them (parks versus outside) as well as our perceptions (of where we expect wild animals to be), leaving us quite unprepared to deal with them in a way that is peaceful rather than conflict-prone.

A recent study by ecologist Steve Redpath discusses how many of the human-wildlife conflicts in other parts of the world are in reality human-human conflicts where the animal becomes a symbol of the conflict. Thus, solutions for many conflicts lie in the human dimension of the issue. We understand humans better than we do the animals, yet currently we target every action towards the animals—so we never solve the conflict.

Forest department officials look for traces of leopards.

The forest department, the administrative department in charge of wild animals, often has a tough time trying to ensure wildlife such as leopards, elephants and monkeys stays within protected areas. Unfortunately, most of the interventions related to wildlife in human-use landscapes have been triggered by pressure from people, leading to knee-jerk reactions rather than searching for and implementing long-term solutions that aim at changing human behaviour. Garbage is a good example: Dirty towns attract dogs and pigs, and they are followed by leopards, wolves and hyenas. The solution lies in cleaning our surroundings, not in capturing wildlife.

In fact, the capture of animals, as at the Yamuna Biodiversity Park in Delhi, can start a chain of serious conflict. For there is no dialogue between the many stakeholders on the need to familiarize an animal with new surroundings. Our study in Maharashtra shows that if you capture animals that were living in village areas (without attacking humans) and release them into a good “forest", you have an animal that could potentially kill people near the release site. Therefore, what we think of as the solution can transform an animal, from one that has left humans alone to one that can take the lives of people.

Mumbai has reached some sort of an uneasy peace with its leopards, so much so that filming crews from The National Geographic and BBC are vying to film the city leopards; they, in turn, are obliging with fascinating footage. It was not like this a decade ago: Attacks were a regular feature, going up to as many as 30 in a year. Managers and scientists later realized that these attacks coincided with the large-scale capture of leopards around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai and their subsequent release into the park.

These captures, the outcome of pressure from scared residents, removed leopards from where they were “unwanted" and left them inside a forest. This phase coincided with the attacks on people. In 2004 and 2005, some leopards tagged prior to release went on to kill people after their release in “good" forests.

In India, there is no place that doesn’t have people, so releasing a disoriented, stressed leopard in a new place can be very dangerous.

After 2011, the Mumbai forest department changed its tactics: Instead of trapping leopards as a solution, it decided to start working with people. It first increased its own capacity, set up a control room, trained and equipped rescue teams, ensured better coordination with other offices of the department in the Mumbai and Thane region, then roped in scientists to get basic information on the leopards, and tapped the ecological, sociological and traditional knowledge of the Warli tribals, who live inside the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and worship the large cats.

The knowledge it gained was then disseminated to the important stakeholders, including police, institutes around the park and residents, each time a leopard was sighted in the vicinity. This was done by a team of people comprising local citizens and forest officials. The proactive engagement in the Mumbai case has resulted in a significant decline in the number of leopard trappings since 2013 (prior to 2013, there were about 10 trappings every year). The attacks on people have also stopped completely.

The only way forward is to improve on how we humans use the landscape and enhance understanding so that fear gives way to a healthy respect for wild animals. This would involve taking care of the problems people have with wild animals and acting to reduce their losses. For the phenomenon of wildlife sharing space that has a high density of humans is unique to India.

We are at a juncture when we can either take the route of extermination, like other countries, or show the world how to share space with wildlife.

Vidya Athreya is a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society—India Program and has worked extensively with leopards in rural and urban landscapes.

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