Sugarcane Leopards

How is it possible for large carnivorous cats to live with humans in a rural area? Asking this big question are Vidya Athreya, a wildlife biologist and Sunetro Ghosal, a social scientist.

Most of Akole valley in the Indian state of Maharashtra was formerly semi-arid and drought-prone. When rains allowed, farmers grew crops such as pearl millet, sorghum, and safflower. Intensive cultivation was started in the 1980s with the aid of irrigation. Akole valley was soon transformed from a dust-bowl, into a lush mosaic of pale green blades of sugarcane, rich velvety green of banana fronds and rangy stands of corn. Set amongst them were smaller plots of onion, sorghum, wheat, cauliflower and other vegetables, grown for the wholesale markets of Mumbai. The scraggly hills that form a jagged horizon to the west are dry and sparsely covered in brush, with a few tree plantations. Nothing in this landscape could be remotely described as forest where wild mammals might roam through thick vegetation.

People here make a living through agriculture and animal husbandry. On one end of the spectrum, the richer farmers focus on high income-yielding sugarcane and imported Jersey cattle while at the other, poor tribals survive on marginal rain-fed agriculture and graze goats on the scrubby hill slopes. Nomadic shepherds make seasonal migrations from further afield, to graze their animals on fallow fields. Although little of this landscape is set aside for conservation, in the fertile green valley prowl predatory animals with golden coats spotted with black rosettes. Locals know there are leopards around, some have seen them, others have heard of them and some have lost calves, dogs or goats. But people here seem largely tolerant of the predator’s presence probably because no human life has been taken.

How is it possible for large carnivorous cats to live with humans in a rural area? Asking this big question are Vidya Athreya, a wildlife biologist and Sunetro Ghosal, a social scientist.

Prior to stumbling onto this modern-day Eden, Athreya had spent a few years studying human-leopard conflict in a neighbouring area, where 47 people had been mauled in three years. Throughout the past centuries and across countries in Africa and Asia, leopards have attacked thousands of humans and killed scores.

Why do leopards attack people? Are we just easy meat? Over the decades, several explanations were trotted out, such as man-eaters suffered from debilitating injuries, broken canines, too few prey animals and/or little water in the forest, infrastructure development disturbing forest stretches, increasing numbers of leopards, improper disposal of corpses giving the scavenging cats a taste of human flesh, and loss of fear of people. But no definitive study actually supports any of this.

Athreya declares that studying a situation, where leopards and humans are able to coexist in an agricultural landscape without conflict, provides the key to understanding why the cats maul people elsewhere. To this end, both Ghosal and Athreya set up their studies in Akole with funding from the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Delhi and the Research Council of Norway in Oslo. The Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES) and Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA) provided scientific stewardship under their joint ‘Wildlife-human interactions: from conflict to coexistence in sustainable landscapes’ project.

What do these rural leopards eat? One relatively simple way of answering this is to examine the hair remains found in scats. Leopards, like several other wild cats, defecate on paths. In forests where trails are few, droppings are easy to find. How do you begin looking for leopard excreta in a 300 sq km agricultural area where a maze of paths lead in every direction? Perhaps the cats here keep a low profile by avoiding paths altogether because of human activity. To maximize the search effort, the team of research assistants spread wide and scoured hills, fields, towns, roads, paths, dry stream beds, every type of habitat. To their surprise, it wasn’t all that difficult to find leopard scats; they were everywhere!

The hair remains were teased out from the excreta and examined under a microscope. In the absence of usual wild prey such as deer and monkeys, the leopards were living mostly off dogs, feral pigs and livestock. The few wild animals on the menu were mongoose, civet cats and rodents.

How well did leopards survive on this diet and landscape? Could agricultural fields hold thriving populations of these big cats? Estimating the density of leopards in this area would provide a handle on this. Since the pattern of spots is unique to each leopard, photographic identification of individual animals was the method of choice. Twenty pairs of camera traps were set up in 40 sites over an area of 136 sq km for 30 days. Since both flanks of an animal are not identical, a pair of cameras was fixed facing each other.

The cameras were placed in areas where scats were numerous, and there was evidence of leopard activity such as pugmarks, scratches on trees, besides interviews with people. Ghosal found that people who did not own goats or dogs were hardly aware of the presence of leopards. For instance, although one lady said that she had never seen a leopard and denied that there were any around, one was caught on camera ten feet away from her house!

In the final tally, five adult males, six females and four cubs were recognizable in the photographs. Once the area of the trapping exercise was adjusted, the density came to as many as 5 leopards living in 100 sq km of farmland! More remarkably, that same 100 sq km also supported five striped hyenas and about 35,700 people! Clearly, agricultural areas were rich hunting grounds for these wild cats. Other animals that triggered the cameras were a rusty-spotted cat, jungle cat and jackal.

When an old leopard (named ‘Ajoba’) fell into a well, the Maharashtra Forest Department rescued him and Athreya affixed a GPS transmitter around his neck. As is sometimes the practice, he was released about 60 km away at the western edge of the district boundary at Malshej Ghats. Thereafter, every day his GPS location was pinpointed by satellite, and an international SIM card tucked in the collar transmitted this information by SMS to the NINA server in Norway. All Athreya had to do, to access Ajoba’s location, was log onto the server. As a backup, the collar also held a traditional short-range VHF transmitter, so should the GPS malfunction, the animal could be traced using a hand-held receiver.

A translocated leopard typically returns to the site of its capture, or ranges randomly over long distances, either lost or attempting to find its home; rarely does it settle down at the site of release. A few days after Ajoba’s release, contrary to expectations, his GPS tracer began to dot westwards on the map, in the opposite direction from the site of his capture. He crossed the busy Mumbai-Agra National Highway, and the Kasara railway station, giving Athreya several anxious moments. Ajoba didn’t linger at either Tansa or Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuaries but continued onwards crossing the Vasai Industrial Area near Thane, on the outskirts of Mumbai city. Twenty-five days later, he entered Sanjay Gandhi National Park and the GPS points stayed clustered in a 25 sq km area for almost six weeks; he seemed to have settled down.

Then inexplicably he took a swim across the 100 metre Ulhas River into the main section of the Park, but returned. This may have caused the collar to malfunction as all further transmission stopped. Before settling down, Ajoba had traveled 120 km, and at several locations was very close to people. Remarkably not once did anyone notice the leopard. It is only because of his collar that we are aware of this wild cat’s extraordinary journey from the Ghats to the coast. Since Ajoba was quite an old animal, and had consistently walked in a single direction before settling down, the team doesn’t think he was lost; he was sure of his destination

A leopardess caught in Nanashi, near Nashik, was collared and named Sita. She was in an advanced stage of pregnancy when she was released 50 km away. For a month she tried to return unsuccessfully. Then she gave birth at the site of release and her mothering instincts overruled the urge to return home. She hid in the forests during the day and prowled through neighbouring villages at night, hunting dogs and goats. Four months later, when her cubs were able to follow, she returned home to Nanashi. Over the subsequent eight months, until the collar dropped off, she prowled a 10-25 sq km area.

The true eye-openers to leopard ecology in agricultural landscapes were Jai Maharashtra, a young leopard and Lakshai, a leopardess. Although these two animals were caught in separate locations, it immediately became obvious that they were related. After being radio-collared, Lakshai (who was missing a canine!) emerged from her drugged stupor and made a beeline for Jai. Eventually, DNA testing showed that they were mother and son.

For the first two months after Lakshai had a litter, Jai, the dutiful older son, stayed with the cubs while their mother went hunting. Perhaps leopards are not the solitary beasts we have been led to believe. Compared to Ajoba and Sita’s long distance treks, Jai and Lakshai hardly moved at all. Although the analysis is still incomplete, the preliminary estimate of their home range is approximately 25 sq km. The resident animals holed up in sugarcane fields all day and emerged at night to hunt dogs and pigs. Schooled as I was, in the paradigm that large wild cats belong in tall undisturbed forests, this revelation came as a shock. Until this moment, I had expected these cats to live in a wilderness area somewhere and make occasional forays into the sugarcane fields. But their GPS points clearly indicated that these leopards lived in farmlands 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If they were ever sent to a forest, it would seem like an alien world just as it would to any farmer!

So why didn’t these leopards attack people? How do leopards use this landscape and when are they active? Do they avoid houses and roads? Do they wait until all human activity on the farms cease at night before venturing out to hunt? To her surprise, Athreya found that the time stamp on the camera trap pictures showed that people and leopards were using the same paths at approximately the same time, often within minutes of each other. Since rural

Maharashtra suffers all day power shut-downs, farmers visit their fields at night to turn on their water pumps. And this was also the time when leopards were prowling the pathways looking for prey, or patrolling their territories. So what makes Akole special?

Athreya avers that we still know too little about the drivers of conflict, but offers that inappropriate management such as translocation may only aggravate conflict. Continued collaring of animals, studying their movements and interactions with one another will provide a better understanding of when and why large cats attack humans.

Ghosal’s social science study revealed that peoples’ attitudes to leopards were coloured by a three-way tension between their religious-social backgrounds, political-legal frameworks, and economic loss-insecurity (both personal and livelihood). Tribal and pastoral communities worship Waghoba and Waghjaimata, the god and goddess of large cats. Combined with this, religious ethnic tribals see themselves embedded with leopards in a single dynamic landscape and do not apply for compensation even when they lose livestock. By taking greater care of their animals, loss is minimized.

However, they feel powerless when the Forest Department takes away their access to grazing on the hill slopes. They also believe that the Department releases leopards in the hills to prevent them from grazing and collecting firewood! It should also be worth mentioning that fewer leopards are found in the marginal areas used by tribals where there is little shelter or prey. Despite their weak politico-legal leverage, the strength of their religio-social backgrounds and ability to prevent losses, has led to a positive attitude to leopards.

Rich farmers on the other hand, generally feel that these cats have no place outside protected forests and instead of securing their calves and goats, occasionally use their political clout to pressurize the Forest Department into removing them. Since they suffer more losses to leopards and feel they are being forced to live with these “government-owned” predators, their disaffection is inadequately appeased by compensation. Yet, leopards thrive in these sugarcane fields because farmers leave them unmolested. Some others have adapted to the presence of leopards in the landscape; they say they walk after dark in groups, armed with torchlight, and usually talk loudly so they do not inadvertently bump into a large cat. They also claim that leopards do not confront people but should it happen, they would give space to the feline to walk away. A lot of families confidently sleep out in the open while all the livestock and poultry are secured in enclosures.

New values, such as seen in wildlife programs on television, also exert a positive influence on people’s perception of the wild cat. Many take pride that leopards live in their midst and that researchers are studying them. All this has promoted tolerance of these cats in this landscape. For instance, some women who were weeding at noon, watched a leopard walk past. Moments later, in the next farm, workers threw stones and sent the feline scurrying for cover. In the melee, one or two of them were scratched and they complained to the Forest Department. When the local official approached the first farm owner for permission to place traps to catch the leopard on his land, he flatly refused. None of his family or workers was hurt by the feline, he argued.

What this study underscores is that leopards are being sustained in high densities in rural areas because of the easy availability of stray dogs and feral pigs. There are an estimated 128 dogs per sq km in Akole town and around 3,000 pigs in the township.

With such easy pickings in abundant supply at their doorsteps, these fat wild cats do not need to undertake strenuous walks, and therefore their home ranges are small. Since the density of dogs is higher near towns, so too are leopard densities. On numerous occasions, both Lakshai and Jai were within the town, walking between houses. Although DNA analysis of samples obtained from the scats is yet to be completed, Athreya made a preliminary identification of 20 individuals. Not surprisingly, six adult leopards were stalking and hunting dogs and pigs in a 4 sq km town of 20,000 people. There were more leopards lurking around Akole town than in the surrounding countryside.

Further, Athreya has found other agricultural areas in India where leopards live with people without attacking them. It could even be the norm rather than the exception. Clearly, when there are so many wild animals living outside protected forests, a policy for their conservation and management needs to be drafted. If these numbers of leopards are deemed too high, the most appropriate management measure would be to clean up towns, thus reducing the stray animal population. Local Forest Department officials require crisis and people management training in order to perform their jobs better. Compensation payments should be made less tedious and bureaucratic; it should be linked to effective protection, so that those who take better care of their livestock are rewarded, and support provided to those who lack the resources to adequately protect their animals.

Thanks to Indian cultural and religious traditions, most rural people are amazingly sympathetic to leopards, as long as humans are not harmed nor alienated from resource or land use in the name of conservation. If our management policies can build on this existing foundation, then people may adapt better to living with these large cats. It would then be a win-win situation for carnivore conservation.

This article is from issue


2010 Dec