The leopards in India have started to slowly change their spots, at least in the public imagination. Studies and surveys from 2006 onwards indicate that leopards are not merely a species limited to India’s forests and wildlife sanctuaries.
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 visitors ‘straying’ outside forests and wildlife protected areas, as frequently reported in news media.
A slew of recent scientific studies and surveys, using trail cameras, 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.
Between December 2014 and April 2015, wildlife scientists carried out a leopard study and census in Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in Mumbai, India’s most populous city. The 104-square kilometre SGNP, one of the largest protected forests in any big city worldwide, has had leopards living amid high human densities for long. In 2012, photographs obtained from camera traps during a preliminary survey indicated that the park was home to a minimum of 21 leopards. Still, no accurate estimate had been made using scientific field methods of the number of leopards in the park. 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.
The 2014–15 study and census was 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.
Surve set up trail cameras in a sampling grid covering an area of about 120 square kilometres, encompassing the Park and adjoining areas such as the Aarey milk colony, to capture photographs of leopards walking past the cameras and estimate their numbers and density in SGNP. He walked 120 kilometres of transects to estimate the density of wild and domestic prey (such as deer, dogs, and pigs) and analysed leopard scats or droppings to understand the cat’s food habits. In the field, the project helped train forest staff in wildlife techniques, use of field equipment, and monitoring.
The results of the study, which Surve presented in his 2015 Masters dissertation, indicated at least 31 leopards occurred in SGNP at a density of about 22 leopards per 100 square kilometres. The leopards’ diet (biomass consumed) was 57% wild prey such as chital, rodents, and langur, the remainder being dogs and livestock. One-fourth of their diet comprised domestic dogs that occurred at a density of 17 dogs per square kilometre in the Park. Consuming prey like dogs, rodents, chital, 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 by Advait Edgaonkar and Ravi Chellam in 1998 documented that between 1986 and 1996, 14 people, mostly children, were killed and 15 others, mostly adults, injured because of leopards. Most incidents occurred along the Park periphery, where further urbanization and encroachment has continued over the years.
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. 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, Edgaonkar and Chellam noted that 9 died during capture and, doubtless, many sustained injuries before release. 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 between 2002 and 2004.
As leopard biologist Vidya Athreya and others note in a 2007 publication, ‘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 6 within the park. The Forest Department trapped 26 leopards between July 2002 and December 2003, translocating 21 back inside the forest. 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. 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 by Athreya and others in 2011 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 programme in the area.
The number of attacks on people increased from an average of about 4 per year to 44 in the 3 years of the programme. 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 because of the translocation according to the research.
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 they are forced to pass through. A 2014 study in Maharashtra by Morten Odden, Vidya Athreya, and others that monitored released leopards using radio telemetry showed that three leopards released less than 10 kilometres away from the capture site returned immediately to the original home range.
The study of movements of translocated leopards raised questions over the programme’s effectiveness. As Odden and the other researchers 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). From 2014 through 2016, there were no leopard attacks on people in SGNP. A spate of 6 incidents in 2017 (5 on infants, one of whom died while the other 4 were injured, and one attack on two women resulting in injuries) ended after the leopard was trapped, taken into captivity in the rescue centre, and not released again. In 2018, there were again no leopard attacks on people.
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.
Research studies on leopard numbers, ecology, and behaviour also add critical pieces of information to assist and better prepare people to live in a landscape with leopards. 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.
Recent studies show that leopards occur frequently in densely populated areas as well as those of intensive human use, including landscapes dominated by agriculture in Maharashtra, tea and coffee plantations with scattered rainforest fragments in the Western Ghats mountains, and large multiple-use landscapes in Karnataka. Leopards survive in these landscapes, subsisting on any available prey species: wild prey such as deer and Indian crested porcupine where available or domestic animals and dogs in other areas. By avoiding human habitations by day and visiting by night, leopards have also learnt to navigate human-dominated terrain. 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.
This excerpt from The Wild Heart of India has been published with permission from Oxford University Press.