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Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Leopard study throws light on ways to minimise man-animal conflict

Elusive, shy leopards avoid encountering humans, despite depending on their domestic animals for food and in fact can live close to their habitations, but in such a surreptitious way that most people do not even know they are near, leave alone getting harmed.

In order to minimize human-leopard conflicts, it is important to understand more about how these big cats live among people, indicates a year-long study conducted by Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra wildlife departments and experts on five fully-grown leopards, including three female, by tagging radio collars.

The habitat of these leopards was mainly the inhabited areas on the outskirts of Shimla and Akole town in Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra.

The study, published recently in the journal PLoS One, said the leopards in human areas are not always “stray” or “conflict” animals but the policy makers need to rethink India’s leopard-management strategies to minimise man-animal conflict.

“Leopards in human areas have been seen as stray or conflict animals. What we commonly see is a frenzied reaction to these sightings, mostly ending in disasters for people and the animals,” Vidya Athreya of Wildlife Conservation Society, associated with the study, told IANS.

She said this study has now proven that leopards are in fact resident animals and may require the country to revise management strategies to deal with wildlife in human areas.

Sandeep Rattan, a veterinary surgeon with the Himachal wildlife wing, said rather than rejecting the leopards, people in man-animal conflict zone should be sensitized to accept them.

“They (leopards) generally come near to human habitats in search of easy prey and dogs attract the leopards from far away because the predators have good hearing,” Rattan told IANS.

He said the focus should on minimising the population of stray dogs. “If the number of stray dogs are reduced, leopards’ visits to villages and towns would automatically reduce. The way to reduce the stray dogs is by reducing their food source which is garbage.”

The studied leopards perceived as “problem animals” were captured from human-dominated areas. Two were later translocated and released more than 50 km away, while the remaining three were released near the site of capture.

The scientists monitored the animals’ activities from the time of release, recording their behaviour, including strategies they adopt to avoid direct contact with people.

According to the study, immediately after release, the two translocated animals moved away 89 km and 45 km respectively from the release sites.

“This indicated futility of translocation as a management strategy; this could have in fact aggravated the conflict as these animals passed through highly-human dominated (even industrial) areas,” said the study.

However, the leopard applied tactics to avoid encountering people, despite dependence on their resources.

Firstly, the animals mostly moved at night, which timed perfectly with low human activity. They also spent more time closer to people’s homes at night than during the day.

“This gave them an access to people’s livestock, and yet kept them safe from people,” Athreya said.

The two translocated animals occupied bigger home ranges, from 42 km and 65 km, including one on the outskirts of Mumbai. The other three lived in areas with highest human densities, but occupied smallest home ranges (8 to 15 sq km) ever recorded for leopards anywhere.

“The home ranges of the three animals are comparable to those in highly-productive protected areas with a very good prey density,” said Athreya.

“This indicated that food sources associated with humans (domestic animals) supported these leopards.”

Moreover, two of the females even gave birth to cubs during the course of the study.

Despite living in close proximity to humans and even being dependent on their resources, none of the leopards were involved in human deaths during capture or following release, said the study.

There is a need for more studies on ecology of wildlife that share space with humans in India, so that better understanding can feed into better policy, it added.

Though the leopard is protected under Schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, they are occasionally poached for their skin.

Sometimes they are also killed by farmers to protect livestock. (By Vishal Gulati in Shimla, IANS)

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