Incidences of leopard scare as also attacks on humans and retaliatory killings of the carnivore are on the rise in parts of India. Experts suggest a few management solutions to handle the issue, based on their experience in the districts of Maharashtra.
How best to conserve wildlife, including large carnivores like leopards? This is a global debate. One school of thought argues that protected areas – national parks and wildlife sanctuaries – with no human inhabitants offer the only hope for wildlife. Proponents of this school often say such wildlife areas should be fenced to ensure separation between people and wildlife.
An alternative school of thought argues that protected areas will never be large enough to protect wildlife, and the only way forward is to allow wildlife to share the wider landscape with humans. While our work does not document the importance of protected areas, it provides insights to the coexistence-conservation model.
We’ve shown that leopards, in addition to hyenas and other carnivores, can live in heavily modified landscapes with high human densities. Not only can these large cats survive here, they are very much resident here, successfully raising young and going about what they do best - living as secretive cats even among high density of humans. Most importantly, they manage this with a minimum of conflict if they are left to themselves and if people take basic precautions and adopt preventive measures.
The people of Akole have demonstrated an amazing ability to adapt to the presence of their wild neighbours. This is good news as leopards and other carnivores like hyenas can be conserved across India – with farmlands providing new areas for conservation and ensuring connectivity between protected areas. This has probably always been the case but unknown to us because hardly any research on large wildlife has been carried out in human-use areas.
The Akole landscape where people and the leopard co-exist © www.projectwaghoba.in
However, we must also acknowledge that things can sometimes go terribly wrong. Interacting with the villagers who share their living space with leopards has given us a human face to this conflict. While some of the problems can be attributed to misguided interventions like translocations, there’s always potential for tragic encounters between people and leopards.
Leopards are dangerous neighbours and can’t be taken lightly. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of leopards living in areas just like Akole, far from any protected area. These animals are not going to disappear on their own. How should these animals be managed to reduce the probability of people and leopards bumping into each other? Translocation makes the problem worse, and removal to captivity is not a sustainable option. What then can the authorities do?
Firstly, and most importantly, we must accept that leopards live in farmlands. They are not lost or straying from elsewhere. They are breeding populations, and they are there to stay. Once we accept this, then better and more appropriate management and policy actions can be planned which would be much more effective than the current idea that these animals only belong in the forests.
Secondly, preventive management is the key. Farmers need help to better protect their livestock. Civic authorities should reduce food sources like garbage that attract leopard prey to small and large towns. When prey becomes scarce, leopards will tend to have larger territories, live in low densities, and produce small litters. This will minimize the risk of encounters between man and animal. Providing compensation (not necessarily monetary, could be even in kind) for loss of livestock complements these preventive measures.
Thirdly, most situations require no action. A leopard seen close to a house or a leopard killing a goat or dog is not a situation that warrants reaction. If leopard cubs are found in a field, they should be left untouched or moved to the adjacent field, if the field needs to be harvested. This is done more often than not in the sugarcane areas of Akole and nearby Junnar and Nashik, sometimes by the farmer itself or the forest department.
Leopard killed in infighting © www.projectwaghoba.in
When people are deliberately attacked, action should be immediate and decisive and aim at removal of the danger. It is often impossible to determine which is the individual that carried out the deliberate attack on a human but in a human-use area it is more important to remove the danger in the fastest way before more people are killed.
Shared spaces are not easy; they come with some risks attached. However, rural India appears to have been practising it, long before we were debating it in scientific journals and conferences. At a time when many countries are debating how to live with carnivores, the Akole example offers new opportunities for wildlife conservation in human-dominated areas, in addition to protected areas.
Written by Dr Vidya Athreya and team
Picture credit: www.projectwaghoba.in
The write-up was published in the NINA Special Report as part of Waghoba Tales written by Ashok Ghule, Vidya Athreya, John Linnell and Morten Odden.