Published in Current COnservation 4.4
Most of Akole valley in the Indian state of Maharashtra was formerly semi-arid and drought prone. When rains allowed, farmers grew crops such as pearl millet, sorghum, and safflower. In the 1980s with the aid of irrigation, intensive cultivation began. From a dust-bowl, Akole valley was transformed into a lush mosaic with dense stands of sugarcane, rich velvety green of banana fronds and rangy stands of corn. Set amongst them were smaller plots of onion, sorghum, wheat, cauliflower and other vegetables grown for the wholesale markets of Mumbai. The scraggly hills that form a jagged horizon to the west were dry and sparsely covered in brush with a few tree plantations. Nothing in this landscape could be remotely described as an archetypal forest where wild mammals might roam through thick, concealing vegetation.
People here make a living through agriculture and animal husbandry. At one end of the spectrum, rich farmers focus on lucrative sugarcane and imported Jersey cattle while at the other, poor tribals survive on marginal rain-fed agriculture and graze goats on the scrubby hill slopes. Nomadic shepherds make seasonal migrations from further afield so their animals can forage on the fallow fields. Although little of this landscape is set aside for conservation, a large golden cat spotted with black rosettes prowls amongst the tall cane fields in the fertile green valley. Locals know there are leopards around, some have seen them, others have heard of them and some have lost of calves, dogs or goats.
How is it possible for large predators to live with humans in a rural area? Asking this big question are Vidya Athreya, a wildlife biologist and Sunetro Ghosal, a social scientist.
Prior to stumbling on this modern-day Eden, Athreya had spent a few years studying human-leopard conflict in a neighbouring district where 47 people had been mauled in three years. Throughout the past centuries and across countries in Africa and Asia, leopards have attacked thousands of humans and killed scores.
Why do leopards attack people? Are we just easy meat? Over the decades, several explanations were trotted out such as man-eaters suffered from debilitating injuries, broken canines, too few prey animals and/or little water in the forest, infrastructure development disturbing forest stretches, increasing numbers of leopards, improper disposal of corpses giving the scavenging cats a taste of human flesh, and loss of fear of people. But no definitive study actually supports any of these contentions.
Athreya declares that studying a situation where leopards and humans are able to coexist peacefully in an agricultural landscape provides the key to understanding why the cats maul people elsewhere. To this end, both Ghosal and Athreya set up their studies in Akole with funding from the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Delhi and the Research Council of Norway in Oslo. The Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES) and Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA) provided scientific stewardship under their joint 'Wildlife-human interactions: from conflict to coexistence in sustainable landscapes' project.
What do these rural leopards eat? One relatively simple way of answering this is to examine the hair remains found in scats. Leopards, like several other wild cats, defecate on paths. In forests where trails are few, droppings are easy to find. Where do you begin to look for leopard excreta in the maze of paths crisscrossing a 300 sq.km agricultural area? What if these rural cats keep a low profile by avoiding paths and people altogether? To maximize the search effort, the team of research assistants spread wide, scouring hills, fields, towns, roads, paths, dry stream beds, every type of habitat. To their surprise, it wasn’t all that difficult to find leopard scats; they were everywhere!
The hair remains teased out of the excreta were examined under a microscope. In the absence of the usual wild prey such as deer and monkeys, these leopards were living mostly on dogs, feral pigs and livestock. The few wild animals on the menu were smaller still: mongooses, civet cats and rodents.
How well do leopards survive on this diet and landscape? Can agricultural fields hold thriving populations of these big cats? To answer these questions leopards had to be enumerated, but how? Each leopard can be identified by its unique pattern of spots so camera trapping offers a scientific way of counting individuals. Since both flanks of an animal are not identical, a pair of cameras was fixed facing each other. Twenty pairs of camera traps were set up in 40 sites over an area of 136 sq.km. for 30 days to estimate the density of leopards.
The camera traps were placed in areas where scats were numerous and where there was evidence of leopard activity such as pugmarks, scratches on trees. Although the team interviewed people, Ghosal found that those who did not own goats or dogs were hardly aware of the presence of leopards. For instance, although one lady said that she had never seen a leopard and denied that there were any around, one was caught on camera ten feet away from her house!
In the final tally, five adult males, six females and four cubs were distinctly recognizable in the photographs. Once the area of the trapping exercise was adjusted, the density came to as many as 5 leopards living in 100 sq.km of farmland! More remarkably, that same 10 x 10 km area also supported five striped hyenas and about 357 people! Clearly agricultural areas were rich hunting grounds for these wild cats. Other animals that triggered the cameras were rusty-spotted cat, jungle cat, and jackal.
Were these leopards seasonal migrants from the closest forest taking advantage of the abundant feral prey?
When an old leopard (named ‘Ajoba’) that fell into a well was rescued by the Maharashtra Forest Department, Athreya affixed a GPS transmitter around his neck. As is sometimes the practice, he was released about 60 km away at the western edge of the district boundary at Malshej Ghats. Thereafter, his GPS location was pinpointed every day by satellite and an international SIM card tucked in the collar transmitted this information by SMS to the NINA server in Norway. All Athreya had to do to access Ajoba’s location was log onto the server. As a backup, the collar also held a traditional short range VHF transmitter so should the GPS malfunction, the animal could be traced using a handheld receiver.
A translocated leopard typically returns to the site of its capture or ranges randomly over long distances, either lost or attempting to find its home; rarely does it settle down at the site of release. A few days after Ajoba’s release, contrary to expectations, his GPS tracer began to dot westwards on the map, in the opposite direction from the site of his capture. He crossed the busy Mumbai-Agra National Highway, and through the Kasara railway station giving Athreya several anxious moments. Stranger still, Ajoba didn’t linger at either Tansa or Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuaries but continued onwards crossing the Vasai Industrial area near Thane, on the densely populated outskirts of Mumbai city. After twenty five days on the move, he entered Sanjay Gandhi National Park and the GPS points stayed clustered in a 25 sq.km area for almost six weeks; he seemed to have settled down.
Then inexplicably Ajoba took a swim across the 100 metre Ullas River into the main section of the Park but returned. This may have caused the collar to malfunction as all further transmission stopped. Before settling down, Ajoba had traveled 120 km, and at several locations was very close to people. Remarkably not once did anyone notice the leopard. It is only because of his collar that we are aware of this wild cat’s extraordinary journey from the Ghats to the coast. Since Ajoba was quite an old animal, and had consistently walked in a single direction before settling down, the team doesn’t think he was lost; he was sure of his destination.
A leopardess caught in Nanashi, near Nashik, was collared and named Sita. She was in an advanced stage of pregnancy when she was released 50 km away. For a month she tried to return unsuccessfully. Then she gave birth at the site of release and her mothering instincts overruled the urge to return home. She hid in the forests during the day and prowled through neighbouring villages at night hunting dogs and goats. Four months later, when her kittens were old enough to follow, she returned home to Nanashi. Over the subsequent eight months, until the collar dropped off, she prowled a 25 sq.km* area.
Neither of these two animals’ case histories reveals the life for a typical leopard in Akole’s sugarcane fields. Then along came Jai Maharashtra, a young leopard and Lakshai, a leopardess. Although these animals were caught in separate locations, it was immediately obvious that they were related. After being radio-collared, Lakshai (who was missing a canine!) emerged from her drugged stupor and made a beeline for Jai. Eventually DNA testing showed that they were mother and son.
For the first two months after Lakshai had a litter, Jai, the dutiful older son, was always close at hand, staying with the kittens so their mother could go hunting. Perhaps leopards are not the solitary beasts we have been led to believe.
Compared to Ajoba and Sita’s long distance treks, Jai and Lakshai hardly moved at all. The resident animals holed up in sugarcane fields all day and emerged at night to hunt dogs and pigs within a range of 25 sq.km*. Schooled as I was in the paradigm that large wild cats belong in tall undisturbed forests, this revelation came as a shock. Until this moment, standing with Vidya just metres away from a hidden leopard, I had expected these cats to live in a wilderness area somewhere and make occasional forays into the sugarcane fields. But their GPS points clearly indicated that these leopards lived in farmlands 24x7. If they were ever translocated to a forest, it would seem like an alien world just as it would to any farmer! Leopards have long known to be adaptable animals, but in this landscape they act just like large pussy cats, keeping stray animals under control.
How do leopards use this landscape and when are they active? Most crucially, why don’t these leopards attack people? Do they wait until all human activity on the farms ceases at night before venturing out to hunt? To her surprise, Athreya found that the time stamp on the camera trap pictures showed that people and leopards were using the same paths at approximately the same time, often within minutes of each other. Since rural Maharashtra suffers all-day power shut downs, farmers visit their fields at night to turn on their water pumps. And this was also the time when leopards were prowling the pathways looking for prey, or patrolling their territories.
Despite living in such close proximity, what are the reasons for the lack of conflict? Athreya avers that we still know too little about the drivers of conflict but offers that inappropriate management such as translocation may only aggravate conflict. Continued collaring of animals, studying their movements and interactions with one another will provide a better understanding of when and why large cats attack on humans.
What factors promote tolerance towards dangerous predators in one’s neighbourhood? Ghosal’s social science study revealed that peoples’ attitudes to leopards were coloured by a three-way tension between their religious-social backgrounds, political-legal frameworks, and economic loss-insecurity (both personal and livelihood). Tribal and pastoral communities worship Waghoba and Waghjaimata, local deities symbolized by tigers or leopards. Combined with this religious ethic, tribals see themselves embedded alongside these predatory cats in a single dynamic landscape and do not apply for compensation even when they lose livestock. They also take greater care of their animals, so loss is minimized.
However, they feel powerless when Forest Department not only denies access to grazing on the hill slopes, but they believe the Department releases leopards in the hills to prevent them from grazing and collecting firewood! It is also worth mentioning that fewer leopards are found in the marginal areas used by tribals where there is little shelter or prey. Despite their weak politico-legal leverage, the strength of their religio-social backgrounds and ability to prevent losses has led to a positive attitude to leopards.
At the other extreme, a minority of rich urbanized farmers feel that these “government-owned” cats have no place outside protected forests. So they use their political clout to lobby for the removal of leopards. Since these farmers are negligent about securing their calves and goats, they suffer more losses to the predators and thus feel vindicated in their attitudes. Their disaffection is inadequately appeased by compensation. Yet, leopards thrive in these sugarcane fields because farmers leave them unmolested.
Most others have adapted to the presence of leopards in the landscape; some say they walk after dark in groups, armed with torchlight, and usually talk loudly so they do not inadvertently bump into a large cat. They also claim that leopards do not confront people but should it happen, they would give space for the feline to walk away. A lot of families confidently sleep out in the open while all the livestock and poultry are secured in enclosures.
New values such as seen in wildlife programs on television also exert a positive influence on people’s perception of the wild cat. Many take pride that leopards live in their midst and that researchers are studying them. All this has promoted tolerance of these cats in this landscape.
For instance, some women who were weeding, calmly watched a leopard walk past. Moments later, in the next farm, workers threw stones and sent the feline scurrying for cover. In the melee, one or two of them were scratched and they complained to the Forest Department. When the local official approached the first farm owner for permission to place traps on his land to catch the leopard, he flatly refused. None of his family or workers was hurt by the feline, he argued.
This study underscores the fact that leopards are being sustained in high densities in rural areas because of the easy availability of stray dogs and feral pigs. There are an estimated 128 dogs per sq.km in Akole town and around 3000 pigs in the township. With such easy pickings in abundant supply at their doorsteps, these fat wild cats do not need to undertake strenuous walks, and therefore their home ranges are small. Since the density of dogs is higher near towns, so too are leopard densities. On numerous occasions both Lakshai and Jai were within the town, walking between houses. Although DNA analysis of samples obtained from the scats is yet to be completed, Athreya made a preliminary identification of 20 individuals. Not surprisingly, six adult leopards were stalking and hunting dogs and pigs in a 4 sq.km town of 20,000 people. There were clearly more leopards lurking around Akole town than in the surrounding countryside.
During further study, Athreya has found similar situations where leopards live with people without conflict in other agricultural areas in India. It could even be the norm rather than the exception. Clearly when there are so many wild animals living outside protected forests, a policy for their conservation and management needs to be drafted. If these numbers of leopards are deemed too high, the most appropriate management measure would be to clean up towns reducing stray animal populations. Local Forest Department officials require crisis and people-management training in order to perform their jobs better. Compensation payments for livestock losses should be made less tedious and bureaucratic; it should be linked to effective protection so those who take better care of their livestock are rewarded, and support provided to those who lack the resources to adequately protect their animals.
Thanks to Indian cultural and religious traditions, most rural people are amazingly sympathetic to leopards, as long as humans are not harmed nor alienated from resource or land use in the name of conservation. If our management policies build on this existing foundation, people are more likely to share farmlands with large cats and accept them in their midst. This could set a precedent for the conservation of large predators in villages and farms across India and the world.