Sunday, May 11, 2014

Human-leopard conflict in India

Most people who pay attention to wildlife related issues are aware of human-tiger conflict in India, but there is another big cat in town making an even bigger ruckus- the Indian leopard. These leopards wreak havoc on the lives of people throughout the country, and have havoc wrought on them in return. Read on to learn about these issues and what is (or isn't) being done about them.


An Indian Leopard
This profile was originally going to be specifically about the Indian subspecies of leopard (Panthera pardus fusca), but as it turns out, little is known about the Indian leopard. Consequently, this profile will be generally about leopards with specifics about the Indian leopard added in when I come across them.

Leopards (Panthera pardus) are the smallest, most populous, and most widespread of the big cats, yet the hardest to find in the wild. This elusive cat is often appreciated for it's beautiful coat, but there's much more to these guys than just pretty spots. 

A leopard at a sanctuary in Sikkam India.
Image courtesy of Vidyuth Srinivasan
Though they're the smallest big cats, they're nothing to be trifled with. They usually weigh between 66 and 176 lbs (30-80kg), stand up to 31.5 inches (80 cm) at the shoulder, and are between 4.25 and 6.25 feet (1.3-1.9m) in length. Males tend to be larger than females by 20-40%. Certain subspecies (full subspecies list is below) are known to fall at certain ends of the size spectrum. For example, Arabian leopards (P. pardus nimr) usually weigh 44-66lbs (20-30kg), whereas Persian leopards (P. pardus saxicolor) come in on the higher end weighing at least 132lbs (60kg).  In India specifically, leopards range from 5.9-7 feet (1.8-2.15m) in length and are a maximum of 110lbs (50kg) for females and 150lbs (68kg) for males.

Like the majority of cat species, leopards are solitary animals. The only time leopards will be seen together is during mating, or when a female has cubs, otherwise they're loners. Each has it's own territory and will announce its presence on their turf by going on "patrols" and marking it. Scent marking is carried out by rubbing their cheek (which contains a scent gland) against trees, and by digging their back feet into the ground to leave a scent behind from the glands in their feet. They also claw mark to leave visual evidence to other leopards, and call to announce their presence. These calls also allow males and females to find one another for mating purposes.

Here is a male leopard calling dibs on a tree.
Source: Grant Atkinson
Leopards mate year round, throughout most of their range. When a female is ready to mate she releases hormones in her scent markings that a male picks up on. During this time she will call to attract males and mark her territory more frequently. When a male is attracted the female will strut around in front of him, rub against him, and present herself, sometimes relentlessly until the male accepts. When mating occurs it generally lasts a several days, during which the pair mate multiple times- sometimes up to 100 times per day! Once impregnated gestation lasts 96 days and the female will give birth to an average of two cubs, each weighing less than (2.2lbs (1kg) at birth.  

African leopard cub playing with female
This leopard cub is getting its mother back for all those times
she carried it around by the neck.
After birth, the mother will stow her babies in covered areas to protect them from predators while she is out hunting. To ensure their safety she will move them around frequently to keep possible predators guessing. Cubs are weaned at about three months of age, but do not gain independence until 1-1.5 years. The expected lifespan of a leopard in the wild is 10-12 years

Aside from their signature coat, their stealth and elusiveness are probably the characteristics they're best known for. You might say they're on par with ninjas. They can get within a few meters of their prey without being detected. This ability is key for them. They're not distance runners like many of their prey species, so they increase their chances of snagging a meal if they can get close to it without being detected. After they make a kill they are known to drag their meal up into trees to avoid harassment or their prey being stolen from them. They do this less often in the absence of competing species. Sometimes these prey items are considerably heavier than them; they've been known to take prey as large as young giraffes, which weigh as much as a quarter-ton! Despite some large prey items, leopards are opportunistic and will eat prey as small as insects and rodents. In India, the leopards diet is comprised primarily of sambar, chital, nilgai, cattle, langur monkeys, peafowl, rodents, wild pigs, and hares. 

In many parts of their range they've got quite a few formidable enemies, including elephants, lions, and hyenas. Elephants, being herbivores, aren't competitors. They simply don't want the leopard around since it puts their young at risk and have no problem throwing their weight around to chase one away. 

This elephant has had just about enough of the leopard's presence
near it's herd.
Source: Shawn Rosvold
Lions and hyenas eat some of the same prey species as the leopard and have been known to directly steal prey; lions will even go up into the trees to pilfer the leopards meal. To the leopard's advantage, lions can't climb nearly as high (due to their massive size), and hyenas can't climb at all, so their method of food caching (storing prey up in trees) protects their prey in many cases. In India, their main competitors are tigers and dholes, but I am unsure if they do much stealing from leopards.

Not only do they carry their prey into trees, they sometimes hunt in trees (perhaps a monkey sitting on a branch), and even FROM trees...

Leopards are the most versatile of the big cats. They can live in a diverse range of environments such as deserts, rain forests, and mangrove forests, among others. This lends to their wide geographic distribution. Depending on where they live their coat will vary, allowing them to blend in with their environment more seamlessly. The most extreme color variation in the leopard is melanism, which makes them appear black, though their spots are visible in sunlight. Melanistic leopards are rare and appear mostly in forested and mountainous areas throughout their range, including India. Here is a picture of a melanistic leopard that clearly shows its spots:
Source: Wikipedia
The other variations are less extreme than melanism and amount to a slightly different hue to their characteristic spotted coat. For example, savannah leopards tend to be more reddish or brownish, whereas desert leopards have a paler color, allowing them to blend in with the sandy landscape. Another fun fact about their appearance is that individual leopards can be identified by their spot pattern

Judging from those spots, me thinks this is the same leopard
from the second image, eh?
Image courtesy of Vidyuth Srinivasan
Despite their differing appearances, there is only one species of leopard, with nine recognized extant subspecies.** Here is a list of them, including their scientific name, range, and IUCN status: 

  1. The Amur Leopard aka the Far East Leopard aka the Siberian leopard (P. pardus orientalis): Found in the Amur region bordering China, Russia, and North Korea. Critically Endangered (they are the most endangered of all cat species, there are approximately 50 left in the wild).
  2. The Indian Leopard (P. pardus fusca): Found throughout the Indian sub-continent; Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, south China, Pakistan, and India. Near Threatened.
  3. The North Chinese Leopard (P. pardus japonensis): Found in fragmented pockets from northern to central China. Near Threatened.
  4. The Javan Leopard (P. pardus melas): Found in Java, Indonesia. Critically Endangered.
  5. The Persian Leopard aka the Caucasian Leopard aka the Iranian Leopard (P. pardus saxicolor): Found in Iran, Armenia, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Georgia. Endangered.
  6. The Indochinese Leopard (P. pardus delacouri): Found in Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and South China. Near Threatened.
  7. The Arabian Leopard (P. pardus nimr): Found in Oman, Yemen, and Israel/Palestine. Critically Endangered.
  8. The Sri Lankan Leopard (P. pardus kotiya): Found in Sri Lanka. Endangered.
  9. The African Leopard (P. pardus pardus): Found in Sub-Saharan and north Africa. Near Threatened.

**Note: the Clouded Leopard and the Snow Leopard are not true leopards, despite their name, in case you were wondering why they aren't included. 

Don't you just want to scratch his tummy?
After reading all that, surely you must love leopards now! If so, you'll be sad to know they're having a rough time. Poaching for their beautiful coats is big threat to these little-big cats. Further, there is increasing human-leopard conflict in many parts of India; specifically, leopards have been attacking a lot of people, and are being attacked in return.

As you might have picked up from reading this profile, leopards are adaptable animals- so adaptable that they can easily live on the outskirts of human settlements and in certain crop fields. They're the kind of animal that has the philosophy (if animals had philosophies): when one door closes another one opens. If the scrubland is gone they'll move into another forest, if that forest is destroyed they'll move into farmland, if their wild prey is decimated they'll eat dogs or livestock. They're truly survivors. This is why despite habitat destruction they've managed to keep a pretty hearty population going in recent years, and also why they're in such increased contact with humans.

Let's explore some of the conflict and the causes behind it...


Poaching: Poaching isn't technically a type of human-wildlife conflict, but it's enough of a problem for leopards that it needs to be mentioned. 

Not everyone is content with just having tacky leopard-print things, some people need the real deal. Leopards are primarily poached for their fur. About 90% of seizures in India contain only leopard skins, making them the dominant item illegally traded...

Seized leopard skins. Don't you think they look so much better *on*
a leopard? Source: TRAFFIC India
... though their bones and other body parts are also used, particularly in traditional medicine.
With the tiger population decimated, leopard bones are all the rage as a replacement in traditional medicine. As such, leopard poaching has been on the rise to meet the demands of the traditional medicine market, as well as the market for skins. Leopard poaching is illegal in India, and can lead to a jail sentence of up to seven years. But that doesn't seem to be slowing the poachers down. 

On May 1 a four-man poaching gang was busted in Tamil Nadu by undercover officers and were found with tiger and leopard skins. They were asking for around $117,000 US dollars for the skins. The "mastermind" of this poaching operation is still at large. In January of this year nine poachers were arrested in Maharashtra when, again, an undercover officer posed as a buyer, leading to two arrests; these arrests led to seven more. These poachers killed one leopard and two cubs by leaving out a goat slathered in poison. They were selling the skin for around $2,500 US dollars. Just a few months before, in October 2013, 21 leopard claws were seized from two people from the Baheliya tribe, also in Maharashtra. One offender was arrested and one escaped.

Leopard claw seizures a worrying trend for Indian wildlife.
Leopard claws seized in Maharashtra.
Leopard claws are thought to bring good fortune.
Source: IFAW
According to a report from TRAFFIC India, at least four leopards are poached per week in India. Within a decade, from 2001 to 2010, an estimated 2,294 leopards were trafficked in India, and there were 420 seizures of leopard parts! Most of these were destined for China, Burma, Laos and other Asian countries, via the porous India-Nepal border. 2010 was a particularly bad year, with at least 160 poached between January and May. The offences happen across the country, occurring in 21 of the 35 states. The busiest area for illegal trade of leopard parts is Delhi, which accounted for around 26% of the total seizures included in the report. The highest number of small seizures happened in Uttarakhand; Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Uttar Pradesh are also hot spots.

Attacks: If you do a quick Google search you will see that the number of leopard run-ins with humans in India is staggering

A leopard attacks a forest guard at Prakash Nagar village near Salugara, on the outskirts of Siliguri, India. (AP)
A leopard attacked 11 people in Kolkata in 2011
Source: News 24
As a result of these conflicts, villagers often kill the leopards out of revenge. It is estimated that around 60 leopards are killed in the states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh yearly in response to conflict. In 2012 alone 114 were killed in Uttarakhand. 

In 2013 a leopard attacked three people in Assam
and was later hanged by the villagers.
Source: What's on Ningbo
On May 6th a 14-year-old boy was killed and eaten by a leopard in Pauri, Uttarakhand, leading four villages to boycott the voting polls. The locals say that if the state cannot protect their children they will not vote. On April 21st, in Uttar Pradesh, an eight-year-old girl was dragged from the courtyard of her home and killed by a leopard. Her body was later found in the nearby Katarniaghat wildlife sanctuary. A few days earlier, on April 19th, in Maharashtra-near the Sahyadri Tiger Reservea farmer was attacked by a leopard, but his life was saved by a pack of wild dogs.

There was a series of attacks in Guwahati, a large city in Assam, that was all over the news in 2012; including the one in the picture below when a leopard entered someone's home and attacked several people. 

A leopard lashed out at a man, whose scalp was peeled back, in the Indian city of Guwahati on Saturday. The cat attacked at least three people before being captured and taken to a zoo for observation.
This man was attacked in his home in Guwahati in 2012, a city that
has been expanding into the adjacent forest.
Source: NY Daily News
Yet, leopards and humans have lived together in India in relative peace for multiples of centuries. Over the past 17 years or so attacks have increased significantly, with a few severe spikes here and there. Leopards don't naturally prey on humans, but might do so in instances when their prey species are low in number. However, attacks don't only occur because the leopard is trying to eat a human, they're more likely to occur out of fear when an animal roams into a human settlement and finds itself bombarded by people and is trying to escape. 

What are the factors that have led to increasing attacks? 

Possible causes for increased attacks... 

The attacks have increased for a whole slew of reasons that are working together to make things worse. The short version goes something like this: 

From what I can gather, it appears that mounting pressure from decreased habitat area and prey numbers, caused by the slow push of human settlements into natural areas has led to an increase in attacks over time; in part because the animals are hungry, and in part because they're scared. Further, the planting of certain crops has given leopards habitat within areas that humans frequent. This increase in contact and the resulting attacks led people to demand translocation of problem animals, which in turn led to further increased attacks. 

Below I'll go through the individual causes and contributing factors I've come across to try to make sense of it, but it's a little messy. 

Habitat loss/Population Growth: There is no doubt habitat loss and population growth are major factors in the increasing contact between humans and leopards. People are moving into forested areas in a big way and the results are horrifying, as you saw above. India has a greater population than the entirety of the African continent! It comprises only 2.4% of the Earth's land area, but houses 16.7% of the population (currently 1.2 billion and counting). The population has doubled since the 1970's.

Leopards have disappeared from around 40% of their historic range in Africa, and 50% of their historic range in Asia. A report from the United Nations gave a breakdown of the change in land use in India from 1950-2008. In terms of percentage of the countries land area, forest area has increased from 14.2% to 22.8%; this is from reforestation policies, though there is no mention of the quality of the additional forest; non-agricultural land area (e.g. human settlements) has more than doubled from 3.3% to 8.5%; and other uncultivated land (which includes groves, tree crops, scrubland, and jungle; areas leopards love) is nearly halved, from 49.45% to 26.82%. 

Source: Current Science
As you might expect with increased human settlement and overall decreased leopard habitat, humans and leopards are in increased contact. The buffer area between forested and inhabited areas is shrinking or non-existent, due to the growing population slowly pushing into natural areas either to live, or farm. As such, the vast majority of the attacks mentioned above occur at the edges of forest reserves.

The May 6th attack on the boy, mentioned above, happened here:

Pauri, Uttarakhand
Source: Google Maps
And here is a map of Guwahati, where that string of attacks happened in 2012:

Guwahati, Assam
The city is encroaching on the forest.
Source: Google Maps
As you can see, both of these regions have one thing in common: natural areas, represented in green, and settlements surrounding them. The majority of other attacks happen in the same types of areas. 

All these people need to make a living somehow, and some of them do it by farming, which could be a confounding factor in the attacks. One commonly farmed crop that draws leopards is...


Sugarcane may be a contributing factor in the attacks, though it probably isn't the root cause. 

A lot of sources suggest that attacks increased when a sugarcane boom happened within the past few decades; during a time when the government started providing economic incentives to encourage sugarcane farming (which it still does). Sugarcane fields (along with mango orchards and tea plantations) provide great cover for the cats. The fields are so dense that leopards can hide easily. Mothers may also stow their cubs in sugarcane fields. 

A 2002 study on an area near Gir Protected Forest in Gujarat states that sugarcane cultivation increased by 87% and mango cultivation increased by 103% between 1992 and 1999. Here is a chart showing the increase in leopard (and lion) sightings in this area as the cultivation of these crops was on the incline: 

Source: Impact of changing cropping patterns...
During this period of time, 55% of leopard attacks occurred on farmlands, and depredation of livestock increased 150% (by both lions and leopards). This study also shows that more attacks generally happened around areas with sugarcane as opposed to areas without sugarcane. That study was undertaken in the Junnar Forest Division in Pune. 

A boy stacking sugarcane. There could be a leopard
a meter behind him and nobody would be the wiser
Source: PBS
But, there are also areas with a lot of sugarcane and not many attacks. For example, there is evidence that the leopards followed the spread of sugarcane in areas of the Western Ghats, where they used to live in the hills, but now they congregate in the valleys where the plantations are. Despite that, there are numerous villages that experience very few leopard attacks. There was even an article last year titled the Mystery of Maharashtra's Happy Sugarcane Leopards which talked about exactly this. Apparently, the leopards live in the sugarcane fields and come out at night to feed on dogs and livestock. That particular study points out that in their study area of western Maharashtra there were eight carnivore species, including leopards, present in high abundance in very populated areas, yet very few attacks. 

Overall, it appears the sugarcane is giving the leopards a place to live that's frequented by people, but  closer proximity does not necessarily equate to increased number of attacks. Why are they coming out of the forest and scrubland in the first place? 

They're hungry.

Decreased wild prey availability: Humans hunt the leopard's prey species. Wild ungulates are killed for their horns, meat, and skins by local people, leaving leopards with reduced numbers of natural prey. Also, there is decreased and degraded habitat for the leopards prey. The result is decreased food for the prey and consequently, reduced numbers. Further, the wild herbivores that are there will roam out of the protected areas to find food and the leopards will follow. 

Chital, a common prey item for leopards in India
Source: Walk the Wilderness
Lack of prey is a problem throughout much of their range. Some examples are West Bengal, Gir Wildlife Sanctuary, and around Sanjay Gandhi National Park, where leopards regularly roam outside the park boundaries into the city to find food. Improper waste management means that there are quite a few dogs and rodents in the human settlements to feed the hungry leopards, as well as livestock in areas near farms. 

What happens when leopards cause a ruckus by coming into human settlements to look for food? 

Translocation: One method that was used for a while to deal with problem leopards is translocation, which is the act of taking a "problem leopard" and moving to another area. I was originally going to include this in the "conflict resolution" section, but seeing that it seems to have been the cause of many attacks, I think this is a fitting place for it. 

I can't find much about the history of leopard translocation in India, but from what I can gather, it is a method that was used at least sporadically since the 1980's, and was officially endorsed as a method of dealing with human-leopard conflict in a 2002 amendment to the Indian Wildlife Protection Act. It may have been discontinued in 2007, though perhaps only in selected areas, such as Sanjay Gandhi National Park. This method entails setting a baited cage trap to catch a leopard, which may or may not be the offending leopard, and moving it to the nearest suitable area. 

A cage used for leopard capture near Junnar
Source: Human Society of Australia
In the Junnar Forest Division in Pune attacks jumped by 325% after a major translocation project was undertaken nearby in 2001. As we know from the sugarcane section above, the areas in Junnar that had sugarcane experienced more attacks than the areas without, initially leading people to believe that sugarcane was the cause of the dramatic increase in attacks in 2001. However, when a study was undertaken it was found that areas of Junnar with and without sugarcane both experienced a jump in attacks that year- meaning the sugarcane couldn't have sparked the sudden increase since the problem was not unique to sugarcane areas. Evidence suggests the problem was the huge translocation project. Around 150 translocations occurred around the time the attacks started getting out of control. In this area, leopards and humans lived together in relative peace for most of history, until the translocations occurred.

Near Sanjay Gandhi National Park there were 80 attacks from 2002-2006, starting after a number of leopards were translocated into the park. These attacks decreased to three a year after the translocation program was stopped, in 2007. From what I can gather, the problem leopards were captured, and may or may not be in permanent captivity. Still trying to find that information out. But, why would they start attacking after translocation?

They can't adjust to the new habitat. Firstly, being taken from their territories and placed into a new, unfamiliar area is likely causing stress to the animal, leading to increased aggression. There is also a possibility that fear of humans is partially lost when they are in captivity in the period between capture and release, which can last weeks. Once the leopards are released at the new site, they are stressed out and also pitted against unfamiliar leopards that are native to the release site. Mother leopards will have to protect their cubs from new, strange males, and the newly released and native leopards will fight for territory. Those who have no territory will seek refuge at the forest borders, near humans. Translocated leopards who cannot adjust and suffer repeated altercations with more dominant leopards are also at higher risk of being preyed upon by wild dogs and tigers. As such, attacks are shown to increase in areas where there are a lot of translocated leopards. 

Ajoba- a male leopard that was translocated after falling into a well in 2009
Souce: The Hindu
Incidental evidence shows some of the animals causing the problems in these areas are the older leopards. I found a source (which I can't locate again!) that said the reason these individuals are more likely to be pushed to the forest boundary, where people live, is because they are weaker and cannot fight for territory. This article also states that weaker (though not necessarily older) leopards are generally the ones to be pushed to the habitat boundaries. As such, these older/weaker leopards end up in contact with people not out of choice, but out of necessity because they have nowhere else to go. Which brings a new level of sadness to this mitigation method.

A researcher in India managed to put tracking collars on some translocated leopards and found that one of the first few collared traveled around 74.5mi (120km) back to its suspected home range in Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai after release. This leopard was named Ajoba, and he's got a movie made about him! Sadly, he was hit by a car just as he was getting to the park. Elsewhere in the world, translocated leopards are also known to return to their native ranges and continue their aggressive behavior. Even if they don't manage to get to their home range, translocated carnivores (including leopards) rarely stay at their release sites.

Overall, this method of conflict mitigation is ineffective and does more harm than good.

Corruption: Corruption isn't talked about a lot in literature I've read, but that doesn't make it any less important. According to a post on Sanctuary Asia from 2011 part of the habitat loss and poaching crisis is due to government corruption. According to the post, wildlife experts are "induced" (I am guessing that means blackmailed or strong armed in some way) to declare rich, ecologically important forests as having "no biodiversity value" so the can "legally" be cleared, and poachers are often let off the hook by corrupt officials. This book talks about how despite there being strong wildlife policies "on paper" the implementation is very poor due to corruption, something admitted by some officials themselves. Further, relevant scientists are rarely involved in policy making, leading the policies themselves to be less than scientific. If you know more about corruption and its effect on wildlife conservation in India, please reach out and tell me about it. 

People freaking out: Before I offend anyone, I am not in any way blaming people for being attacked by leopards. It is not any individuals fault that a leopard attacks, and being scared is the absolute natural response to a large carnivorous cat being near you. But, there is an interesting human behavioral aspect to the attacks that needs to be mentioned. 

There's not a whole lot written about the behavioural aspect of attacks other than the general: 'don't crowd or chase a leopard because that will make it attack you.' But, that statement alone clearly implies that part of the problem is human behaviour. 

The flow of events breaks down in my mind like this: 1) There is increased contact with leopards due to the reasons outline above. 2) This increased contact has led to increased attacks because a) there are more interactions with leopards; much like researchers are saying about the increase in shark attacks, the overall number of attacks will increase, even if the rate of attack (attacks per capita) stays the same, because there are simply more people, and b) the leopards are hungry which may lead them to prey on smaller, weaker people. 3) On top of this, in India, there are increasingly more people removed from wildlife by living in cities, making them less comfortable with wild animals in general. Taking these things into account it seems logical that people probably get more upset and act out more now from seeing a leopard than they did in the past, in both cities and rural areas. However, being scared and acting out can make attacks more likely. The intensified reactions of local people include chasing the animals and crowding around them, which increases the threat of attack due the animal being frightened. 

Meerut, India.
Source: Review Journal
From watching videos and reading articles, the response from the local people is (understandably) intense- and their reaction is part (but obviously not all) of the problem. Further, in line with this, the gist of what I've been reading says that the areas with a lot of leopards and few attacks manage this peaceful arrangement via the people leaving the leopards alone. Overall, why the attacks are increasing in some areas could be partly from intensified fear responses by people.

Conflict Mitigation

There is not much being done at the government level. In India, around half of a $63 million wildlife budget goes toward tiger conservation. No doubt a big chunk probably also goes toward dealing with elephants, which are a focal point for human-wildlife conflict throughout the country. The other "more important" animals mean that there's not too much research or action done on the leopard front. 

Lethal control: Lethal control, or, killing the offending leopard, has been outlawed in India since leopards became a protected species. Only a special committee can order a leopard killed if other mitigation measures do not work. The standard procedure is to determine if the leopard is a man eater by analyzing it's scat first, and if human DNA is found, the leopard should be taking into captivity. If this does not work, only then can the leopard kill be ordered. But, this hasn't stopped people from doing it, sometimes in a very organized fashion. Last year a shooter was hired by the Himachal Pradesh wildlife department to kill two male leopards that were said to be man-eaters. After analyzing the material in their guts they were found to only contain DNA from dogs.  Since the proper officials did not order these kills, it was against the law, however, I cannot find any evidence of prosecution. 

SPOTTED, SHOT DEAD: Hunter Nawab Shafat Ali Khan, who was rushed in from a sojourn at his Ooty resort, poses with the leopard he shot dead on Sunday. Photo: Special Arrangement
Nawab Shafat Ali Khan, a lion hunter from Hyderabad, was
hired to kill a man-eating leopard in Himachal Pradesh in Aug 2013
Source: The Hindu
One man who has been hired to kill leopards on many occasions is Rakesh Bartwal from Uttarakhand. He killed 56 leopards as of seven years ago, though I am sure he's killed more since, and has even been given awards for "bravery" for doing so. In fact, the Uttarakhand wildlife department keeps a list of authorized hunters. These kills appear to be "legal," though the shooters admit that for every man-eater killed, three innocents are slaughtered. It seems that public pressure forces authorities to "officially" declare a leopard a man-eater in many cases. But why?

This article suggests that people who are in areas that are far from cities aren't "heard" by the those in power. Out of frustration and fear, they want the animals dead because they know nothing will be done otherwise. This sentiment of general frustration with the lack of government intervention over leopard attacks is echoed in this article, and this one. In light of that one can't blame the locals for wanting the leopards killed. Many live in constant fear and appear to have no true help coming to them. 

Payment: When someone loses livestock, suffers an attack by a leopard, or has family killed by a leopard, they are compensated. The idea is that this should stop people from resorting to killing the leopard, and it some places it appears to work. In the guidelines released by the government it says photographic evidence should not be required for a compensation to be made, however it is unclear in the guidelines whether or not an official needs to see the carcass/injuries in person. According to this article a carcass needs to be found for the payment to be made. According to the Press Information Bureau in India the payments are the responsibility of the state where the attack happens. 

What could be done, or done better?  Some of this is being done on the local level, but as far as I know there is no effective country-wide program outside of the reimbursements mentioned above. 
  • Building of secure livestock enclosures is important, since largely, leopards enter human settlements for food. Dr. Vidya Athreya says livestock should be locked up in secure enclosures at night, when leopards are most active. Ideally enclosures should be a distance from homes, since the leopards will likely visit a few times before they realize no food is available. There should be a country-wide program where farmers and herders can get assistance to build stronger enclosures, since many poorer people probably cannot afford to foot the bill themselves. 
  • Better trash disposal should be advocated, since litter attracts rodents and wild dogs, which in turn attract hungry leopards. This is spoken about a lot in the articles linked throughout this post, but there does not seem to be much government support, at the local or country-wide level. Local people can themselves work on better trash disposal, but an organized program, or at least some guidelines for better leopard-proof trash disposal would no doubt be a huge help.
Cows and dogs eating trash. Source: Bitter Truths
  • Fences may not work to keep leopards and people separate in areas of high conflict, but the option should be explored. Leopards are great climbers and can get over many walls and fences with ease. The director of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Sunil Limaye, suggests high fences with barbed wire, which could be an option since though the leopards can climb, the barbed wire will be prickly and may stop from from getting fully over the fence. 
  • Behavioral changes will be vital in mitigating human-leopard conflict. It seems that when a leopard enters a village the knee-jerk reaction of the people is to crowd around or chase the leopard. This can scare the leopard and lead to an attack that could have otherwise been avoided.

    Often, if people ignore a leopard, it will go about its business without harming anyone. People know this logically, and wildlife officials and leopard researchers say it time and time again, it's just a matter of actively reaching out and teaching people the proper responses when a leopard is near. Maybe even local "leopard drills," like fire drills, could be undertaken in areas where the problem is the greatest. This could involve a team coming in and teaching people the proper reaction to a leopard, then staging a leopard incursion, where the local people have to react how they would in a real situation. That might sound silly, but with the closer and closer proximity of leopards and people, and the number of people and leopards injured due to interactions, it might be worth a shot. 

  • Increase the numbers of the leopards natural prey. If the leopards are coming into human settlements for food, logic says the best way to stop this would be to beef up their natural prey. Habitat restoration is one way to do this, as well as a cut down in hunting of their prey species. One setback that I can think of: domestic animals are much easier to catch than wild prey. If leopards are used to easy kills there may be no incentive for them to stop their current hunts within human settlements even if natural prey numbers are increased. In order for this to work, a decrease in the wild dog and rodent populations through better sanitation, and better protection of livestock, would probably need to be achieved to deprive leopards of their domestic prey.

  • This one is a tall order. Wipe out corruption. I don't know how that can be done. If you have idea, please let me know. 

In closing, the spate of leopard attacks throughout the country is heartbreaking. The government needs to stand up and devote time and money to making people's and animal's lives better.

I do have to say one thing though- it is very impressive that there is so much wildlife left in India. The fact that there is even this level of human-wildlife conflict in a country of over 1.2 billion people is a testament to the fact that people have "live and let live" for so long. But with increasing population and decreasing habitat, it is time for an organized intervention so both people and wildlife can prosper and flourish. 

1 comment:

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