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Lessons from Ajoba, the leopard who walked 120 kms home
| April 20, 2018
The real Ajoba, caught from a well, in a village north of Pune. ©John Linnel
Dr Vidya Athreya (right) and team radio-collaring Ajoba before releasing him at Malshej Ghats. ©Jimmy Bora
An Indian film, where a wild animal plays the central role, comes very close to highlighting the complex issues that surround human wildlife interactions in India, a country which is unique in the way a high density of people share space with large wild animals even today.
Made with a leopard as its protagonist, it is quite heartening as it shows that such subjects can also elicit awe and empathy from today’s viewers.
The film ‘Ajoba’ which means “grandfather” in Marathi is now available on youtube. The story follows the trail of an elderly leopard across 100 kms of terrain, most of which is densely populated by humans. Crossing human settlements, railway tracks, industrial areas, busy highways and finally swimming the Vasai creek, Ajoba the leopard, emerges unscathed as he finally enters what was probably his home – the Sanjay Gandhi National Park.
Following his capture from a well in the farmlands of Takli Dokeshwar, north of Pune, the leopard is tranquilised and a GPS collar put around his neck by wildlife biologist and researcher Purva Rao, (played by Urmila Matondkar in the movie) who hopes to study more about this leopard.
He is released about 60 km away at the foot of Malshej Ghats. Expecting him to start prowling the vegetable and sugarcane fields of the region, Purva Rao is taken by surprise when he turns towards the hills and starts one long trek to some predetermined destination.
The movie made by Sujay Dhahake, a national award winner, has all the ingredients usually involved in human wildlife interactions – media baying for sensationalism, converging crowds that make it difficult for the managers to diffuse tense situations, and officers with differing views.
Based on the real life story of a leopard, rescued from an open well in a village of Junnar district, Maharashtra, and radio collared, this was part of a study conducted by Dr Vidya Athreya, a wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, to study farmland leopards, an emerging phenomenon in many parts of Maharashtra.
Dr Athreya had radio-collared and studied leopards in western Maharashtra, where these animals, despite sharing space with a high density of humans, preferred to avoid them. In the actual study, four leopards (Jai Maharashtra, Lakshai, Sita and Ajoba) followed over several months, clearly showed no signs of attacking humans, despite living within few metres of habitations. Nor did they show signs of aggression when the cubs were around, in proof of non-inclination to attack humans.
However, Ajoba, the wise grandfather, (so named by Dr Athreya and her team for his elderly and gentle countenance) had other lessons to teach its researcher. He clearly had his mind set on a place, 120 kms away, and that was where he set off to, beginning with a crossing of the Sahayadris, and followed by much-trying landscapes, thick with humans.
Not once in his 29-day journey did he attack any human. This while crossing the busy Mumbai-Agra highway or strolling through the industrial areas of suburban Mumbai. Much to the relief of Dr Athreya, finally Ajoba entered the Sanjay Gandhi National Park but soon enough the GPS transmitter went dead.
The next news from Ajoba came two years later with the death of a leopard, suspected to have been hit by a speeding vehicle on the crowded road near the park. In the middle of the night Dr Athreya was woken up by a phone call from Sunil Limaye, Park Director of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai when he found that a dead leopard hit in a vehicle accident had a microchip. The number confirmed it was Ajoba.
What Ajoba reveals
The story of Ajoba comes with two lessons. One, that leopards are like other wild animals, extremely shy and avoid humans despite living in a landscape full of people. Two, relocation may not be the best solution, especially for older animals as they are territorial and tend to get back to their areas. Other studies carried out by Dr Athreya finds that arbitrary relocation could increase conflict near the site of release of leopards that were caught simply because they were seen and not because they had harmed any human.
Between 1999 and 2005 there were 201 human deaths in Maharashtra alone but this surge could be related possibly to the fact that there was a major relocation of leopards from human landscapes to Bhimashankar and Malshej Ghats during 2001. Relocated leopards tend to be stressed, and the trauma results in aggression, says Dr Athreya.
According to authorities, among the 160 odd leopard deaths in the first months of the year, the maximum number was due to poaching. Hardly a dozen could be attributed to natural causes. After poaching, the next main reason was rail and road accidents, and then human confrontation.
Accidents can be mitigated to a large extent by building landscaped eco-ducts (overpasses) and underpasses along highways, believes Dr Athreya. Confrontations with humans can be reduced by better awareness and response mechanisms by the Forest Department in collaboration with the police and revenue departments.
The Indian leopard is listed as "vulnerable" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. It is protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Estimates put the total number of leopards at around 12-14,000.
Toons created by Arjun Srivathsa.