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Tackling fear – the key instigator in human leopard conflicts
| May 09, 2018
Waking with a leopard sleeping by your bed may not be everyone’s dream come true. But what a banana trader in Mysuru experienced earlier this year could be the shape of things to come, as wildlife habitats continue to shrink. While panic is the first response, it is not the best. According to leopard experts, the animal too is in a state of heightened panic and the best option is to make way for it to leave.
Traditionally many forest tribes and communities coexisted with leopards and tigers, but today the general reaction from the public is of fear and hostility. As a result, there are the increasing incidences of human-leopard conflict, ending up usually with the animal done to death. Attacks by leopards on humans have been fewer and suspected to be related to relocation stress in the animals, based on some studies.
In an interesting project aimed at spreading awareness and educating the people about leopards, Mrunal Ghosalkar, from WCS India, has been training school students in parts of Maharashtra as ‘leopard ambassadors.’ Using a combination of leopard biology and behaviour, along with traditional knowledge obtained from people who have shared spaces with these cats, these children are being given information that can reduce conflict scenarios. They pass it on to other members of the community, among their family and friends.
This is part of a project called ‘Janata Waghoba - The wise big cat’. The project initiated by Mrunal in Junnar district collaborates with Maharashtra Forest Department, Rufford Foundation and Doodle Factory, and aims at knowledge to the local people on leopard behaviour and suggests precautionary measures to protect livestock and humans.
Leopard cubs in Mumbai. ©Steve Winter/National Geographic
From simple advice to handle garbage efficiently and not throw it around and attract dogs and pigs, which in turn draw in the leopards, to keeping cattle safely in sheds, putting up thorny bushes around the house (leopards avoid these), this can help prevent many conflicts, says Mrunal. Going out at night is obviously dangerous where the landscape has a thick leopard density. Something as simple as playing music loudly on the mobile phone could help scare away any predator. Children are advised to go in groups and when alone to play mobile phones or carry a stick with bells tied to it.
Now she has begun the program at Niphad taluk in Nashik district where 65 leopard ambassadors from schools and colleges have been trained. All stakeholders like the education and revenue departments, block development officers and village sarpanchs are engaged in the awareness building. However, changing attitudes takes time and sustained awareness spreading, acknowledges Mrunal.
WCS research scholar Shweta Shivakumar has been working on understanding and resolving human-leopard conflicts in Himachal Pradesh as part of her doctorate.
“Conflict is sadly the main narrative in media today. We need to attempt a shift towards coexisting with wildlife. There is hope it can be done, going by the fact that today despite India’s huge human population, we have managed to retain the world’s largest numbers of tigers and other species. We only need to look to the past to learn how our ancestors coexisted with even more numbers of wildlife,” says Dr Vidya Athreya, a wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society.
A leopard looks over Mumbai. ©Steve Winter/National Geographic
In some parts of India, the co-existence and acceptance of the carnivores can be traced back to Waghoba, the large feline deity worshipped even today in many villages and forest communities of central India. Praying to the deity is expected to keep the people safe from attacks. In Himachal Pradesh, traditional communities believe the leopard walks them home to safety in the evenings. These stories and myths which are as old as the shared spaces could help the local people accept the presence of these animals.
Many tribes like the Warli in Maharashtra live in close proximity to leopards and tigers. Unlike the panic and fear that an encounter with a feline triggers in urban folks, these tribes have included the leopard and tiger as part of the landscape. Learning from these communities on how to coexist is a better option than relocating the leopards, which leads to stress and trauma for the animals and in turn triggers many of the attacks on humans. Research showed that areas near release sites of leopards trapped elsewhere simply because they were “seen” had higher incidences of attacks on humans, therefore, relocation of a large predator in a densely populated country like India is not a solution.
Leopard walking the border trail of Sanjay Gandhi National Park next to an apartment building. ©Steve Winter/National Geographic
The attempt has begun to educate urban residents on how best to live with the leopard. This started with the project ‘Mumbaikars for SGNP’ which was initiated by Sanjay Gandhi National Park Director Shri Sunil Limaye in 2011 in collaboration with WCS India. Today it is still on-going and with many more citizens of Mumbai taking an active interest in contributing to reducing the fear of leopards around the Park. Nikit Surve from WCS India has been working as a biologist in and around the Park since 2015 and has also been involved in the awareness activities, especially with the media students and other college students. As a result of the awareness campaign, he notes that there has been a reduction in the sensational nature of the media reports over the years of the leopard issue.
Leopards are very adaptable and can survive in different landscapes, easily changing diet from forest ungulates to dogs, cats and pigs. At SGNP, it is not a paucity of wild prey that brings them out but the abundance of domestic ones like cats and pigs, says Nikit.
In most cases, they do not harm humans even when living in close proximity, as seen from studies on radio-collared leopards. A mother leopard had littered cubs a few hundred metres from the school compound, without ever being seen or coming face to face with humans for many days, notes Dr Athreya.
If leopards are comfortable living so close to humans, why can’t humans simply accept them too? This may be inevitable given that as cities expand, and human populations grow, the existing protected areas are just not enough to sustain the wildlife. But this is easier said than done, as evidenced by the many reports of villagers stoning or beating leopards to death.
How does one increase what Dr Athreya calls the ‘social carrying capacity’ (SCC) of a landscape towards a species like the leopard? It has to be studied in communities with a high SCC and compared with those that do not have it, she believes.
Sadly, time may be running out for the Indian leopard. In the first three months of the year, around 162 deaths were reported, of which a third were due to unnatural causes.
For now, the leopard has a few well-wishers and some young ambassadors spreading the kindly word.
Compiled and written by Jayalakshmi K