ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Leopard Landscapes

Coexisting with carnivores in countryside and city

The Wildlife Institute of India survey to estimate the number of leopards in Sanjay Gandhi National Park, on the peripheries of Mumbai, will add a critical piece of information to assist and better prepare people to live in a landscape with leopards.

The leopards in India are starting to slowly change their spots, at least in public imagination. Recent studies and surveys indicate that leopards are not merely a species limited to India's forests and wildlife sanctuaries. From crop fields in the plains to tea plantations in the mountains, from villages in the countryside to the suburbs of Mumbai, leopards live alongside people in remarkably different landscapes.

In December 2014, wildlife scientists and park managers began a leopard study and census in Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in Mumbai, India's most populous city. As the study gets underway, it is worth reflecting on what this proximity of the carnivore and field research findings portend for its conservation and co-existence with human population.

A leopard enters a municipal garbage dump, also used by cattle (in the background) at night. Courtesy: Tamil Nadu Forest Department.

Naturalists have long known that leopards occupy a wide range of habitats from farms to forests. Still, without closer study, biologists and managers have earlier found it difficult to ascertain whether the leopards in an area are residents or merely transient individuals “straying” outside forests and wildlife protected areas, as frequently reported in news media. A slew of recent scientific studies and surveys, using camera-traps, radio collars, and other field techniques, is now providing a better understanding of leopards and gradually transforming conservation actions as applied to the cat. The research also suggests that dealing with leopards in human-dominated landscapes by capture and removal or translocation to new areas is not as effective a solution as it was once thought to be.

The Mumbai leopards

The 104 sq km SGNP, one of the largest protected forests found in any big city worldwide, has had leopards living amidst high human densities for long. In 2012, photographs obtained from trail cameras (camera traps) during a preliminary survey indicated that the park was home to a minimum of 21 leopards. Still, no accurate estimate has been made using scientific field methods of the number of leopards in the park.

Camera trap team at work. Cameras are set opposite to each other to get images of both flanks of the leopard. As each leopard has unique rosette marks this helps us identify individual leopards. Courtesy: Nikit Surve. 

The recently initiated leopard study and census is being carried out by Nikit Surve, a young wildlife biologist and masters student at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), with S Sathyakumar and K Sankar, scientists at WII, Vidya Athreya, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, India, and the Maharashtra Forest Department and field staff. Over the next few months, Surve will set out trail cameras in a sampling grid covering an area of about 120 sq km, encompassing the park and adjoining areas such as the Aarey milk colony, and will use the photographs obtained of leopards walking past the cameras to estimate their numbers and density in SGNP. The study will deploy field survey methods to estimate density of wild and domestic prey (such as deer, dogs, and pigs) and analyse leopard scats (droppings) to understand leopard food habits. In the field, the project will also help train forest staff in wildlife techniques, use of field equipment, and monitoring. Although estimating leopard numbers does not directly address the incidence of conflicts with people, the results will set a baseline for long-term monitoring, help understand conflict contexts, and inform management decisions.

Consuming prey like dogs, rodents, and wild pig, the leopards have survived in the SGNP landscape, often with little or no conflict, even as people in tribal colonies in the park report seeing leopards nearly every week. Still, conflicts do occur when leopards attack people or livestock and cause injuries or deaths. This sometimes leads to a public outcry and media attention that in turns brings pressure on the Maharashtra Forest Department to provide solutions. Conflicts involving leopards have been recorded in SGNP at least since the 1980s. An early study in SGNP (Edgaonkar and Chellam 1998) documented that between 1986 and 1996, 14 people (mostly children) were killed and 15 others (mostly adults) injured due to leopards. Most incidents occurred along the park periphery, where further urbanisation and encroachment has continued over the years.

Image of Leopard scat (fecal matter) indirect signs of leopard. Courtesy: Nikit Surve.

Earlier, the standard management response to conflict incidents was to capture the so-called “problem” leopards and take them into captivity or translocate them into the park interior or other forest areas. In what was common practice in Maharashtra as in other states, the Forest Department captured leopards not only after attacks had occurred, but also when leopards had been found in human habitation, possibly considering the latter to be “straying” individuals. In the absence of careful scientific study or monitoring, it was not certain whether the “right” leopard involved in an incident had been caught, whether the same individual was being repeatedly caught, or what happened to the animals after release. As in other states, the operations ran the risk of targeting the wrong individuals (Lenin 2013a). The capture of leopards in metal cages and their translocation also caused stress to the animals and resulted in leopard injuries or deaths. Between 1986 and 1996, of the 52 leopards captured in SGNP, nine died during capture (Edgaonkar and Chellam 1998) and doubtless many sustained injuries before release.

Rethinking leopard capture and translocation

As later events showed, this practice of capture and translocation of leopards has not provided a lasting solution to conflict incidence. Rather counter-intuitively, it may have even led to an increase in conflict, as most dramatically illustrated by the surge in leopard attacks in SGNP a decade ago. As Athreya et al. (2007) note, “The most common strategy of dealing with the leopard “problem” in SGNP has been their capture in baited traps and subsequent translocation into certain areas of the Park and adjacent forests...”. Between March 2002 and March 2004, 24 attacks on people occurred, including six within the park. The Forest Department trapped 26 leopards between July 2002 and December 2003, translocating 21 back inside the forest (Athreya et al. 2007). In June 2004, there were 13 attacks resulting in 10 human deaths, which spotlighted the Mumbai leopards as never before. More than 30 leopards were then trapped, indicating a significant population of the cat existed in the midst of Mumbai, although exact numbers remained unknown.

Field research indicates leopard capture and translocation may not be effective in reducing conflict incidents. Photo: Ganesh Raghunathan.

The leopard capture and translocation programme that was carried out in many parts of Maharashtra may have had the unintended effect of spiking conflict locally and regionally. As studies on leopards in the Junnar region of Maharashtra showed, leopard attacks on people increased by 325% while attacks on livestock increased by 56% after the initiation of a translocation program in the area (Athreya et al. 2011). From an average of about 4 attacks on people per year, the number of attacks increased to 44 during the 3 years of the program. Released leopards marked with microchips were implicated in fresh conflicts around release sites, places where such incidents had not occurred earlier.

Multiple factors, including facets of leopard ecology and behaviour, may account for increased conflict due to translocation programs (Athreya 2006; Athreya et al. 2007, 2011). Besides stress and injuries, translocated animals may face a highly altered landscape context in the release site, including unfamiliar habitat, prey, and human settlements, besides having to confront or avoid other resident territorial leopards. As the leopards navigate their new surroundings, they may encounter people or resort to consuming domestic prey more often. This results in a translocation of the problem to a new area. At the same time, conflicts may not decline in the capture site if other leopards occupy territories vacated by captured individuals. Finally, translocated leopards may not settle in release sites but try to navigate their way back to their original home range, which might result in additional conflict incidents in new areas that the leopards are forced to pass through.

A recent study in Maharashtra (Odden et al. 2014) that monitored released leopards using radio telemetry showed that three leopards released less than 10 km away from the capture site returned immediately to the original home range. Two other individuals, an adult female named “Sita” and an adult male named “Ajoba”, released over 50 km away showed long-range movements of 45 km and 89 km, respectively, passing through industrial, agricultural, and densely populated areas (Odden et al. 2014). While Sita returned to her original range, Ajoba did not, and he appeared to have settled in the Mumbai suburbs, at least until the time when his radio-collar stopped functioning. In almost Bollywood fashion, Ajoba's story was also made into a movie by the same name, which was released in 2014. Still, the study of movements of translocated leopards raised questions over the program's effectiveness. As Odden et al. (2014) state: “It appears that relocations of so called problem individuals may either have only short-term local effects, may simply move the conflict to another area, or in the worst case scenario, increase the level of conflict.”

As findings from research and monitoring became apparent, the Maharashtra Forest Department stopped using capture and translocation as an official policy (but not without slipping back to the method at times, see Lenin 2013b). Although conflict incidents have declined, occasional leopard attacks do occur and continue to spark media attention and sensationalist narratives of “killer leopards”. In 2014, no attacks on people have been reported. A growing understanding, mediated by active civil society groups like Mumbaikars for SGNP, appears to be taking hold suggesting that the leopards are there to stay and what is most needed are measures to foster and sustain coexistence. There is also a crucial role for news media to inform and sustain public engagement, foster a balanced perspective, and facilitate better management (Bhatia et al. 2013). The ongoing survey to estimate just how many leopards there are in SGNP will add a critical piece of information to assist and better prepare people to live in a landscape with leopards.

Carnivores as neighbours

Even as people are still learning to live with leopards in the neighbourhood, it is apparent that leopards, on their part, have adapted quite well (Lenin 2014). Recent studies show that leopards occur frequently in densely populated and intensive human-use areas, including landscapes dominated by agriculture in Maharashtra (Athreya et al. 2013), tea and coffee plantations with scattered rainforest fragments in the Western Ghats mountains (Navya et al. 2014), and large multiple-use landscapes in Karnataka. Leopards survive in these landscapes, subsisting on available prey species: wild prey such as deer and porcupine where available (Sidhu et al. 2008) or domestic animals and dogs in other areas (Athreya et al. 2014). By avoiding human habitations by day and visiting by night, the leopards have also learned to navigate a human-dominated terrain (Odden et al. 2014).

Across India, in possibly hundreds of places, leopards may pass human habitations every night without incident. It is this nearly invisible domain of neutral interaction that perhaps deserves better recognition and enlargement in the public space. Instead, apparent increases in leopard sightings, which may only be a result of increased reporting, still trigger alarmist media reports. In India, it is still too early to claim that the public perception of leopard has shifted from that of an unwanted intruder to that of an elusive, if occasionally troublesome, neighbour. Scientific field studies and on-ground conservation solutions involving landscapes with leopards are certainly pointing in that direction. Where states like Maharashtra have adopted measures based on a more informed understanding of leopards, there are positive signs of change. At the national level, the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2011 issued clear Guidelines on Human-Leopard Conflict Management, but these are yet to be widely adopted and implemented by various states.

Changing the focus from “problem animals”, which has proved ineffective, to “problem locations” also changes the issues that need to be addressed and measures that need to be in place. It brings into consideration site-specific measures to reduce leopard visitations that may lead to negative interactions with people. This could include control of the domestic dog population, appropriate disposal of garbage and kitchen and medical waste, and better protection for livestock in safe corrals. It draws attention to providing better amenities for tribal and under-privileged people living in the area, including lighting, housing, sanitation (to reduce open defecation in forests, especially at night), and other public safety measures. Changing the focus from leopard to location also implies a change from reactive measures (such as capture after conflicts occur) to pro-active efforts (such as making safer surroundings to pre-empt attacks) that reduce negative interactions while enabling people and leopards to share the landscape.

Taking a global perspective, building coexistence with carnivores where they occur in landscapes with people is not a concern restricted to leopards in India. It is relevant to populations of several carnivore species such as lions, bears, cougars, coyotes that live in or are expanding their ranges into human-use areas in many parts of Africa (Woodroffe et al. 2005), Europe (Chapron et al. 2014), and North America (Morrell 2013, Nijhuis 2014). As with these species, India's leopards impel a recasting of the conservation landscape as one that extends beyond the boundaries of protected areas and nature reserves into a wider realm where people and wildlife can coexist (Lenin 2014; Rangarajan et al. 2014).


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