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Revisiting Charlotte and her kin

 

 

 

28th November, Mint, New Delhi

 

 

Last fortnight, news regarding the mysterious death of four leopards inside the ITC Golf Course in Gurgaon and a fifth killed by a speeding vehicle on NH-8 in Manesar, 50km from Delhi, came as a shock. Just days before the news surfaced—amid rumours that the Golf Course leopards may have been poisoned—a new scientific paper showed how leopards were able to live in an incredible degree of proximity to humans and how they have adapted themselves as our neighbours.

 

The paper, Adaptable Neighbours: Movement Patterns of GPS-Collared Leopards in Human Dominated Landscapes in India by Morten Odden, Vidya Athreya, Sandeep Rattan, John D.C. Linnell, was published in the science journal PLOS ONE. More importantly, it shows how urban India is unprepared in terms of ecological awareness, leading to knee-jerk reactions that are causing more harm than good to the species. In September 2011, Mint had published, The importance of being Charlotte on one of five radio-collared leopards featured in the new study. Leopards have been survivors and are found in every possible landscape in the country.

 

Their presence is documented in widely variable environments, ranging from open and semi-arid deserts, through savannahs to tropical forests. But as more and more incidents of the cat being spotted and persecuted in urban spaces get reported in the media, will the leopard also end up like the Cheetah? The only other spotted big cat was hunted to extinction in the subcontinent. In the documentary film, Leopards: 21st Century Cats, (2013), conservationist Romulus Whitaker travels from north to south India in search of the truth behind the gory headlines.

 

Against a backdrop of escalating and deadly human-leopard conflict across India, how is it that such a large predator is still relatively common in a country of 1.2 billion people? What is it really like living with these big cats on your doorstep? For example, even in a bustling metropolis like Mumbai, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in the heart of the city is home to a small population of leopards. A 2011 study by “Mumbaikars for SGNP”, a Maharashtra forest department project in collaboration with the Centre for Wildlife Studies found a minimum of 22 leopards living in 120 sq. km of the park. “Unlike Europe or North America, conservationists in tropical countries such as India have been much slower to see the conservation value of multi-use landscapes, such as farmlands and scrub jungle.

 

There is potential for secondary forests and agro-forest systems to house significant biodiversity and there is evidence showing that large carnivores such as leopards can also thrive in these landscapes,” says Athreya, senior research fellow at the Indian chapter of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Unlike other big cats like the tiger and lion that are vulnerable to human impact, leopards appear to fare better in human dominated landscape as their foraging habits are highly flexible. This adaptability allows leopards to persist in areas of low wild prey availability by consuming domestic animals.

 

“The adaptability of leopards is therefore susceptible with a high potential for conflicts with humans, a problem that is currently regarded as one of the greatest threats to the conservation of large carnivores worldwide,” says Athreya. Adaptable Neighbours, is among the few ecological studies of leopards that have been conducted in India, and even fewer outside protected areas providing basic ecological knowledge relevant for leopard conservation and management. In India, the need for ecological knowledge in association with practical conflict resolution is much needed, as leopards are found in many areas with high human densities, and are involved in more conflicts than any other large carnivore in the country.

 

Five leopards were equipped with GPS collars in this research project from 2009 to 2012; four were captured in Maharashtra and one was captured in Himachal Pradesh. Leopards “Jai” and “Laxxai” were captured within an area of an ongoing intensive human-leopard conflict study, in a densely populated irrigated valley in Akole Taluka located in the western edge of Ahmednagar district, Maharashtra. Sugar cane is cultivated intensively here while the surrounding dry hills are heavily grazed by livestock and also used for the seasonal cultivation of other rain-fed crops. In addition, two leopards were captured, collared and translocated by the forest department in Maharashtra. These were “Ajoba” who had fallen in a well in Parner (Ahmednagar district), and “Sita” who had run into a house in Surghana (Nashik district). Both the districts of Ahmednagar and Nashik have relatively high human population. Finally, Charlotte, was captured about 4km from Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, in an area with a human population density of 159 per sq. km. While the natural habitat comprising a highly inaccessible mountainous terrain with altitudes varying from 1,375 to 2,050 metres, with wild populations of pheasants, barking deer, gorals and wild boar, Charlotte’s movements were confined near human habitations.

 

The data from the radio collars revealed an active nocturnal behaviour among all the leopards—how constantly, and closely, they live near humans. Despite being released in forested patches, both translocated leopards in Maharashtra moved through human-dominated landscapes, including industrial and suburban areas in the case of Ajoba. Jai, Laxxai and Charlotte spent a large proportion of their night-time activity periods moving very near to village houses. “The data analysis indicates that using translocation as a management strategy to resolve leopard conflicts with humans are very limited. The relocations of so called problem individuals may either have only short-term local effects, may simply move the conflict to another area, or in the worst-case scenario, increase the level of conflict,” says Sandeep Rattan, assistant director (wildlife), forest department, Himachal Pradesh, who radio-collared and tracked Charlotte every day for a year.

 

During the day when human activity was at its highest, the leopards restricted their movements to areas further away from houses. Although the research team did not collect systematic data on habitat use, it appeared that areas of tall crops, such as sugar cane, or patches of scrub provided day-time cover. However, the team suggests more research on this topic due to the limited sample size of the study. This study reveals that the leopard is a highly adaptable species with the ability to use whatever resources are available in human-dominated environments.

 

“Living within constraints the species appear to have adopted a strategy of minimizing direct contact with humans while simultaneously being dependent on domestic animals for food,” says Athreya. India has been able to preserve much of its faunal biodiversity because of the tolerance from rural folks. But as rapid economic development is changing the face of rural India, more areas are getting swamped under the urban sphere, the tolerance seems to be eroding fast in the face of new money. Further illegal wildlife trade is a growing menace. According to WWF-TRAFFIC study, Illuminating the Blind Spot: A study on illegal trade in Leopard parts in India, at least four leopards were poached for illegal wildlife trade every week during 2001-2010. Can we accept Charlotte and other big cats as our neighbours? Or will the leopard follow the cheetah into oblivion?