The age-old notion is that forests are for wild beasts and cities and villages for humans. So, any leopard sighting in human territory is hyped beyond limits and should the beast make a kill, all hell breaks loose. Does anyone realise it is inordinate human pressure on forests and natural habitats of animals that drives leopards to make forays into human settlements in search of space, food and water? Isn’t it time humans learned to act a bit more responsibly, respecting the big cats and their natural corridors? TreeTake takes a look at man-leopard confrontations …
For quite some time now, leopards have been making news in west Uttar Pradesh, particularly Bijnor, where sugarcane farmers are living in constant fear, with over 18 deaths and several people being injured. The big cats appear to have settled in the cane fields after being driven out of the reserve forest of Amaangarh tiger reserve in the wake of growing population of tigers. Leopard sightings have also been reported from Greater Noida, Pilibhit, Bahraich and even Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, apart from Uttarakhand and several other parts of the country.
Indian leopards are highly adaptable and can thrive in a variety of ecosystems, from tropical forests to arid regions. They are apex predators and play a crucial role in maintaining the ecological balance of their habitat. Unfortunately, they are also suffering from human-leopard conflict. In fact, human-leopard conflict is a major issue in India, particularly in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, where leopard populations are relatively high. Their ability to thrive in a range of habitats has resulted in their coexistence with humans in many parts of India. However, as human populations have increased and encroached on leopard habitats, incidents of human-leopard conflict have also increased.
Indian leopards (Panthera pardus fusca) are medium-sized big cats with a distinctive coat pattern of rosettes and spots, which provides excellent camouflage in their natural habitat. The leopard has strong legs and a long, well-formed tail, broad muzzle, short ears, small, yellowish-grey eyes, and light-grey ocular bulbs. Its coat is spotted and rosetted on a pale yellow to yellowish-brown or golden background, the spots fade toward the white underbelly and the insides and lower parts of the legs. Rosettes are most prominent on the back, flanks and hindquarters. The pattern of the rosettes is unique to each individual.
Elusive, solitary and largely nocturnal, the leopard is known for its ability to climb, and has been observed resting on tree branches during the day, dragging its kills up trees and hanging them there, and descending from trees headfirst. It is a powerful swimmer. It is very agile, and can run at over 58 kilometres per hour, leap over 6 m horizontally, and jump up to 3m. Leopard incursions in human territories are raising concern as to how well is wildlife conservation working in India and what are the reasons that the big cats are coming into civilian areas.
Reasons for human-leopard conflict
Habitat loss and fragmentation
The loss and fragmentation of natural habitats are significant factors contributing to human-leopard conflict in India. With the rapid expansion of human populations, natural habitats are being destroyed to make way for human settlements, agriculture and infrastructure. This forces leopards to move out of their natural habitats in search of food and water, often leading them to come into contact with humans. This not only increases the chances of conflicts with humans but also exposes them to fatal road accidents as they navigate through urban areas. The encroachment of human activities into leopard habitats further disrupts their natural behaviour and ecological balance. In a fragmented habitat, where sources of water have been disrupted by roads and soil erosion, it becomes tougher for the big cats to find prey. But with easy prey available on the fringes of the forests, they often come into the buffer zones and stray into human settlements to hunt for easy food.
Former UP PCCF Roopak Dey said: “Why encroach on their territory? It is human forays into animal territory that drives the leopard out. Then the poor mute animal is trapped, translocated or stuffed in a zoo. Sometimes villagers lynch it in vengeance killing. In case of a human casualty, kin get compensation but what does the leopard’s family get?”
Pradeep Sharma, RO, Amangarh, Bijnor said: "The sugar cane fields offer a perfect abode to leopards here. They live there and breed and the cubs grow up in the fields. We have caught 14 leopards till now, including 14 in the last 25 days. There are too many of them." He said the problem was likely to persist as long as cane was there. On being asked if the villagers could be motivated to switch to other crops, he said they were not ready. On being asked about leopards being killed by villagers, he said there had been one case but it was in self-defence. The official was clueless on how to deal with the problem or how to conserve leopards.
Decreasing prey populations
Leopards rely on natural prey such as deer, wild boar and monkeys for their survival. However, with the loss and fragmentation of natural habitats, the availability of natural prey has decreased. This has led leopards to venture into human settlements in search of food, making them more vulnerable to conflict with humans.
Illegal wildlife trade
Illegal wildlife trade is a significant factor contributing to human-leopard conflict in India. Leopards are hunted for their skin, bones and other body parts, which are in high demand in traditional medicine and fashion industries. This creates a significant incentive for poaching and as a result, leopard populations are declining rapidly. Unfortunately, the enforcement of laws against poaching have been inadequate, leading to a low conviction rate and continued poaching activities. The lack of attention and concern for leopard poaching compared to high-profile cases involving tigers and rhinos further exacerbates the problem.
Lack of awareness and education
Lack of awareness and education about leopards and their behaviour is also a significant factor contributing to human-leopard conflict in India. Many people are not aware of the potential dangers of encountering a leopard, nor do they know how to respond to a leopard sighting. Additionally, people living in close proximity to leopard habitats often lack the knowledge and resources to secure their homes and livestock from leopard predation.
Increasing human populations
With the rapid expansion of human populations, natural habitats are being destroyed at an alarming rate. This is leading to an increased likelihood of leopards coming into contact with humans, as their habitats are being encroached upon by human settlements. Additionally, as human populations increase, the availability of natural prey declines, leading to an increased likelihood of leopards preying on domestic animals.
Retaliation against leopards
In some cases, conflicts between humans and leopards turn violent, with people retaliating against leopards that have killed their livestock or pets. This can further exacerbate human-leopard conflicts, as it creates a cycle of retaliation and violence.
Tigers pushing them out
With the tiger population in the Amangarh Tiger Reserve having increased substantially, leopards are being pushed out of forests. According to the latest census, the number of big cats has risen from 28 last year to 32. A decade ago, there were just 12 tigers in this region. According to officials, a single big cat, highly territorial by instinct, rules over an area of eight-odd sq km. The reserve is big enough to house a maximum of 12 tigers and the felines are gradually moving to other forest ranges, which is a concern for the authorities. Shrinking territory has made leopards venture out of the forest more frequently. Experts say that the natural habitat of big cats is shrinking and territorial wars among tigers are inevitable. They have suggested that more areas be declared as forest reserves to curb cat fights and avert man-animal conflict. According to a Bijnor forester, over the past couple of years, the rise in tiger numbers has resulted in leopards being pushed out of the forests into sugarcane fields nearby, posing a threat to the farmers. Leopards don’t prefer competing with tigers for prey. So, in densely-populated tiger areas, leopards are few. Outside these dense forests, there are villages. The leopards thus make do with the thin sliver of land, between reserve and community, preying on small feral animals.
Lack of effective management and enforcement
Lack of effective management and enforcement of laws and regulations related to wildlife conservation is also a significant factor contributing to human-leopard conflict in India. Wildlife conservation efforts are often underfunded and understaffed, making it challenging to implement and enforce laws effectively. Humans are gradually forgetting that the natural environment is not only theirs but of but other species as well. Rapid urban sprawl has broken the connection that people in rural societies had with wildlife and nature. Leopards by nature are stealthy and secretive which is why people are often unaware that these animals live near their settlements. They are also very adaptable, so they are also more likely to thrive near urban areas.
Prof Venkatesh Dutta of the School of Environmental Sciences, BBAU, Lucknow, said: "The natural habitat of leopards is shrinking day by day, as is their prey base. Hence the incursions in human territories. There is need for more green cover, forests and reserves. Also, there should be a natural corridor around every urban area for movement of wild animals. If humans need their highways, animals too need their pathways." According to some experts, the over-emphasis on tiger conservation is also a reason that the leopard population has been forced to take shelter near human settlements forays into human population. A report titled Status of Tigers Co-predators and Prey in India, 2018, indicated that the tiger-centric approach was shrinking the habitat and affecting the conservation efforts towards other carnivores, most importantly leopards.
Sometimes, when a leopard kills a domestic animal, the people poison the same and kill the leopards. These retaliatory killings mostly go unnoticed. Leopards are currently listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s red list of threatened species, and are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, of 1972. The latest international report published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography says that due to a range of reasons from shrinking habitat to becoming a victim of roadkill and poaching, leopards are at 83 per cent risk of extinction. Human-leopard conflict is a significant challenge for conservation efforts. Leopard cubs born in sugarcane fields face vulnerability when their mothers run away in fear of humans during harvesting. These defenceless cubs become susceptible to being killed by humans or attacked by stray dogs. Falling into uncovered water wells also poses a risk to leopards.
SK Sharma, PCCF, UP said: “Earlier, there were few habitations close to villages. Now, with villages sprawling, the gap between forests and human habitat is constantly decreasing. Consequently, humans and animals venture into each other’s territory. Cropping pattern also contributes to this. For instance, in Bijnor, 60 to 70% agricultural area is under cane farming and fields sometimes stretch right up to human habitations, even houses. This is a risk factor as cane fields offer a perfect hiding place to big cats, with a semblance of natural habitat and farmers going to their fields are prone to attacks. In coordination with other departments, we are making efforts for a change in the cropping pattern. We are experimenting with alternate cropping in Bahraich with the help of an NGO. If farmers go in for crop diversification, animal forays in human habitats can be reduced. Since the forest area is under pressure, in some places, for example in Pilibhit, Bahraich and Lakhimpur, we are also putting in place physical barriers like solar fencing, which delivers a 'very light shock' to the animal trying to cross over, just enough to repel him. Chain linking to fence off sensitive areas also aims to keep wild animals and humans separated."
How can the leopard be conserved?
To mitigate human-leopard conflicts, measures such as enforcing stringent traffic laws near wildlife-sensitive areas, establishing wildlife corridors and implementing early-warning systems can reduce the chances of fatal incidents involving leopards and humans. It is crucial to increase awareness among local communities about the importance of leopard conservation and provide them with tools and knowledge to prevent conflicts. Additionally, forest departments need to strengthen their efforts in patrolling, monitoring and prosecuting offenders involved in poaching and illegal wildlife trade.
Sanjay Srivastava, PCCF, Social Forestry, UP said: "Certain long term strategies such as assessing the carrying capacity of area and if required coordinating translocation of excess population following rules and guidelines, motivating the villagers around Protected Areas to change the cropping pattern so as to create breakup in continuity of alike habitat between forest and sugar cane crop habitat, creating advanced facilities for monitoring, tranquilizing and effective rescue operation etc also help."
Trapping/relocation no solution
Leopards that are trapped, boxed and traumatised by humans would acquire behavioural problems. Trapping a wild leopard has an immensely adverse effect on its psyche. Also, these cats have a large territorial range. A leopard would more often than not find itself in the territory of another.
What can be done
The habitat must be enriched by planting the endemic / local wild species of fruiting trees in forests . This will attract the Bonnet macaque and Hanuman Langur, Wild boars etc., which are the food base for leopards.
Enriching the ecosystem by soil and moisture conservation activities to help the enrichment of the habitat and help growth of floral diversity.
Providing artificial waterholes in the leopards’ habitat away from human settlements, so that they have water during all seasons. This will prevent them from roaming around human habitation for water.
Creating awareness among people of villages about the importance of leopards, reasons for conflicts and preventive measures.
Installing sign boards along roads in the wildlife landscape about cautioning the drivers to go slowly and carefully to prevent hitting a leopard .
Installing sign boards / posters about the importance of wildlife and how to prevent any instances of attack.
Identifying the leopards’ regular path or movements in different seasons and alerting the people in this corridor.
Establishing a network of informers / watchers to monitor the movement of wildlife, including leopards.
Clearing the thick bushes around the villages to prevent the leopards from hiding.
Tribals and forest dwellers have been living amidst wild life for centuries. It is time people realised the importance of the leopard in the ecosystem and gave it due space, instead of going after its scalp each time it appeared on an urban scene.
Waghoba: Leopards deified
Nature worship has been prevalent in India since times immemorial. There is the concept of a Vandevi or goddess of the forest in Hindu texts. However, certain communities worship the big cats, thereby signifying a peaceful co-existence with wild life. The Warli community of Maharashtra has been worshipping ‘Waghoba’ (a leopard or tiger deity) for protection from leopards, which has prompted their peaceful coexistence. For the Warlis, it is a reciprocal relationship, wherein Waghoba protects them from the negative impacts of sharing spaces with big cats if they worship the deity and conduct the required rituals, especially at the annual festival of Waghbaras.
Not only the Warlis but the Bhaina, Bharia, Bhatra, Dangis, Gond, Gosain, Kol, Korku, Koshti, Velip tribes are also stout worshippers of Waghoba or Bagheshwar. They all have a deep reverence towards the deity and have held strong beliefs about it for generations. Small wonder, for they have a deep connection with nature. They live in small hamlets, often on the periphery of the forests but know how to share space.
They respect the wild animals and their way of life. They believe that once the night falls, humans must stay indoors and not venture out alone, for it is time for the leopards to roam around. They firmly believe that forest rules must not be broken. They keep their surroundings clean and garbage-free so that there are no feral dogs etc and even if a leopard comes, it leaves after a while. Such local arrangements that allay the conflict between man and animal may exist in several other cultures too. Researchers and animal activists believe such traditions are also relevant in the modern era as they are likely to act as tolerance-building mechanisms and build an understanding of the term ‘peaceful coexistence’ among the coming generation.
Research shows that positive interactions were prevalent long before the idea of wildlife conservation was conceived, but these interactions have never been highlighted, nor received much attention. As the aim of conservation is to promote coexistence, there is a need to look beyond the negative aspect of the human-animal interactions and try to understand co-adaptation strategies that humans have developed over the centuries to survive and flourish with the large cats.