Saturday, January 29, 2011

Alley cats

Published in DNA

Unedited version -

It seems like open season on leopards. Over the last month, leopards accused of attacking people in states as far apart as Haryana, Maharashtra and Orissa, have been killed by hysteric mobs.

On the afternoon of Dec 18, 2010, a leopard is said to have attacked three farmers in a village near Gurgaon, Haryana. Panicky villagers hammered it with iron rods and lathis and finally, one of them shot it dead.

Another midday drama unfolded on Jan 9, 2011 in the town of Karad, Maharashtra. A child is reported to have spotted a leopard sitting atop a house. When a crowd of people gathered, the cat snuck into an empty building. Instead of trapping it inside by barricading the doorway, the mob stoned it. With no secure place to hide, the cat charged out and in the ensuing melee, six people were injured. The police chased it with lathis and fired in the air. A man stepped out of a bar, collided with the fleeing leopard and down they went. A police official rushed forward and shot the leopard dead before the man was seriously injured.

A couple of days later, on Jan 13, 2011 a leopard was spotted in a forest plantation about 5 km from Bhubaneswar, Orissa. But before forest officials could arrive, a mob beat it to death reportedly instigated by a local television reporter who wanted dramatic visuals.

Conservationists have urged the National Board for Wildlife, the National Tiger Conservation Authority and the Ministry of Environment and Forests to take action against the people involved. But why do such incidents occur?

In virtually all the cases reported by the press, the leopards were provoked to attack; left alone, they would have quietly skulked away. But how does one prevent an excitable mob from harassing a cornered animal? Imposition of curfew until the animal is safely out of the way is one option. The other is for the Police and Forest Departments to start working in tandem. The former controls the crowd providing the space for the latter to either trap or tranquilize the animal. However, the local Forest Department outpost has to have the skilled personnel and appropriate tools handy for the success of such an operation.

Why do such situations arise in the first place? It is often surmised that leopards are “straying” into villages and towns because infrastructure projects such as dams and mines are depriving them of home and prey. To prevent more such tragic episodes from occurring, some activists have called for the restoration of connectivity between forest fragments and a stop to all further forest loss. While these are inherently sound conservation goals, the question is: can they prevent the collision between people and leopards?

In order to manage conflict, you need to know what is causing it. Fortunately, we’ve learned a few lessons from studies conducted by the leopard researcher, Vidya Athreya in the agricultural fields of Junnar and Akole districts in Maharashtra.

Contrary to widespread belief, here, where there is virtually no forest at all, it is not the absence of prey inside forests but the abundance of feral animals in the countryside that encourages leopards (and other carnivores such as wolves and hyenas) to live with humans. It is futile to manage leopards in this kind of landscape without first cleaning up the garbage, controlling the numbers of stray dogs and feral pigs and securing livestock in paddocks for the night (which the Akole people do and there is no conflict). Elsewhere, when villagers report that leopards are prowling through their fields, the Forest Department hauls the animals away to a forest. Randomly picking up big cats from villages and dropping them in forests actually causes a very real threat to human life.

In Junnar, in the early 2000s, when leopards that had not hurt anyone were preemptively captured and relocated, they began attacking people. We do not yet fully understand why a seemingly benign action should have such a dramatic consequence. Despite evidence, relocating leopards still remains the management tool of choice.

Forests are finite repositories of big cats. As juvenile leopards reach adulthood, these highly territorial animals need to find new land to claim as their own. It is only natural that they explore adjoining agricultural areas where there is food and shelter. If left unmolested, they may settle down to live with humans without causing a problem.

The irrigation projects of the mid 1980s changed cropping patterns in this part of Maharashtra; tall, dense sugarcane stands began to dominate the landscape. This is also the time when the locals say that leopards began to live amongst them. Yet, over the last twenty years, the people suffered little anxiety. Astonishingly, leopards are even hunting in Akole town because of the concentration of stray dogs and feral pigs. Studying situations such as this, we’ve learnt that leopards are quite at home in the absence of forest and wild prey. Further insights into the lives and needs of these cats that live with humans will enable better management of leopard-man conflict in the future.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Mystery Civet

Published in New Indian Express Jan, 8, 2011

“The Malabar Civet may not even exist,” Divya Mudappa said softly, watching my face for a reaction. She didn’t mean that the creature had become extinct; she meant that such a species may have never existed. That’s an audacious statement to make but there are enough reasons to suspect that she might be right.

The Malabar Civet became known to science on the basis of a skin and a partly damaged skull donated by Lord Arthur Hay to the Asiatic Society of Bengal (ASB), Kolkata in 1845. The specimen tags say it came from South Malabar, Kerala, India, but whether the animal was captive or wild, hunted or traded and the exact location went unrecorded.

In 1874, Thomas Jerdon, a well-known figure in Indian natural history, writes that the Malabar Civet was very common and he had seen them on numerous occasions. He felt that the species ranged across the lowland coastal forests from Honavar in north Karnataka to Travancore (south Kerala) and perhaps even to Sri Lanka. This account formed the basis of all subsequent descriptions, range and status of the species by doyens such as Robert Sterndale (1884), William Blanford (1888), William Sclater (1891) and other naturalists until 2003. None of them ever saw the animal alive. In 1933 Pocock pointed out in his review of the species that Jerdon had probably mistaken the Small Indian Civet for the Malabar Civet! But by then, the latter was firmly established in the annals of Indian fauna.

Reginald Pocock, the famous mammalogist (1933), then suggested that the unique characters that set the Malabar Civet apart may be an artifact of captivity, but was nonetheless concerned by the rarity of the species.

In 1949, Angus Hutton reported seeing several Malabar Civets in the High Wavy Mountains, Tamil Nadu, where he was a tea planter. While he described these large civets to be fairly common in the evergreen forests, he had only seen one Small Indian Civet. The son of a civetone dealer based in Valparai, Hutton doesn’t mention how he distinguished the two species, but it is very likely that he misidentified the common Small Indian Civet as Jerdon had before him. What he called a Malabar Civet in a photograph was identified as a Small Indian Civet.

The first tangible evidence of the mysterious Malabar Civet popped up in 1987 when G.U. Kurup of the Zoological Survey of India, Kozhikode salvaged a skin from Elayur, about 25 km from his office. Another skin from the same source was lodged at the Calicut University museum while a third went missing. These skins apparently came from animals caught while a cashew plantation was being converted to rubber. Whether this was first hand information or hearsay is unknown.

A few years later, N.V.K. Ashraf procured an old stuffed specimen (the third one that went missing from Elayur in 1987?) and a fairly fresh skin from a tribal settlement in Poongode, about 15 km from Elayur. Both these specimens were given to the museum at the Wildlife Institute of India where they became decrepit and were subsequently dumped.

The Wildlife Trust of India conducted extensive camera trap surveys in the lowland forests of Karnataka and Kerala between 2006 and 2008 and found no sign of the animal. Concern for the civet grew.

Around this time, two specialists in nocturnal small mammals, R. Nandini and Divya Mudappa began reviewing all accounts of the species and examining museum specimens. They discovered that the little known information was based on Jerdon’s originally erroneous identification and the rest on surmise. This was the point at which Divya wondered if the species existed at all.

Then how does she account for the various skins found in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, I asked. Civetone, the musk produced by the anal glands of civet cats, was much sought after for perfumery, religious offerings and ayurvedic medicine over the millennia. In ancient times there was a thriving trade in large civet cats from Ethiopia and Southeast Asia. Kozhikode, in Kerala, was a major sea port and Kerala also appears to be the origin of all six museum specimens.

Civets in the trade were the African Civet, the Large-spotted Civet from Southeast Asia and the northern Large Indian Civet. The “Malabar Civet” skins bear an astonishing resemblance to the Large-spotted Civet, enough to confuse even seasoned biologists. It’s possible that some escaped captive Large-spotted Civets ended up in collections or they thrived in a small pocket, somewhere near Kozhikode.

This line of argument is sure to raise the hackles of some biologists. But consider this: if the animal was as common as reported in early literature, then why are only a few skins available in museums? It is possible that the Malabar Civet may be remarkably sensitive to habitat change, and hunting pressures. But civet cats in general are adaptable creatures that live on a varied diet. Misled by Jerdon, biologists have perhaps been looking for it in the wrong places. The lack of authentic information makes it difficult to get to the bottom of this conundrum.

So if you are out in the southern forests and see a large civet, these are the characters to look for: a black mane along the back from the nape to the tip of the tail, three dark stripes on the throat, the lack of a dark patch below the eye, and a broad, black tail tip. Even a bad picture would be better than no picture at all!