India: The challenge of living with leopards
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India: The challenge of living with leopards

Last week I asked the question, “What is the price of a tiger’s life?” in reference to the ongoing challenge of humans living together with tigers in India. Tigers are both prized by poachers and feared by villagers whose neighborhoods and farms sometimes overlap with the range of a tiger. That combination cannot work out in the tigers’ favor.

India’s leopards, while far less endangered — as well as less feared by humans — still face similar problems. Their pelts are prized and sold in the illegal wildlife trade, while farmers, villagers and even urban dwellers fear a leopard’s nocturnal presence. Road accidents also contribute significantly to leopard losses. Last week a leopard was even killed by a Mumbai-bound train in Maharashtra state. Other causes of death include accidental electrocutions and so-called “revenge killings”.

From the Hindustan Times:

Leopards enjoy protection in India under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 as they are listed in Schedule I of the Act. Permission to kill leopards is given in the case of man-eaters only. But they still get killed in significant numbers, prompting the wildlife activists to stress for a Project Leopard for saving leopards.

In populated areas residents complain about the presence of leopards, often demanding that authorities remove them or they organize hunts themselves in order to rid the area of the big cats. Sometimes locals turn against the forestry department, blaming them for the leopards’ disturbing presence. In Madhya Pradesh, human-leopard conflict led to 140 recorded leopard deaths between 2008 and 2013. At this rate there soon won’t be any leopards left in the central Indian state.

But there are some positive success stories of humans learning to live alongside leopard populations. In the Jawal region of Rajastan in western India, a local community has set up a council to protect a large group of leopards that live near their villages. Here the leopards are seen as sacred and have become a local attraction. A total of 24 leopards live in close proximity to a private sanctuary/eco-camp, a luxury campground where the big cats can be observed.

Despite their large size, leopards are quiet and illusive, generally keeping out of sight and avoiding humans even in populated areas. Their reputation among the uneducated is quite negative and to be fair, they do have a penchant for stealing the occasional calf or goat. Human kills are much more rare, but do occasionally happen, usually by sick or injured leopards.

In greater Mumbai, a volunteer educational initiative has been met with success. Residents around Sanjay Gandhi National Park, which is surrounded by slum tenements and apartment complexes, was a hotbed of “leopard anxiety” until the park director joined forces with a volunteer group of students and professionals to educate the local inhabitants on leopard behavior.

From the Guardian:

We explain to residents that it’s really easy to take away a leopard but the costs are high. Mothers can be separated from their cubs. There is nowhere else to release the animals. The reason for leopards venturing out of the park is because they have plenty of stray dogs to prey on. The reason there are numerous stray dogs is because of rubbish. Once we explain the situation to them, they understand.

—Vidya Venkatesh, IT professional and volunteer coordinator

Perhaps more importantly, a seminar aimed at journalists to promote the responsible reporting of leopard incidents attracted around 30 reporters. It is often media that inflames fears and panic concerning leopards. Plainly, it is education that is the answer to the survival of this beautiful big cat — and it’s not just poor villagers that need to be educated on the subject.

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A leopard in Rajiv Gandhi Tiger Reserve, Nagarhole, Kabini, Karnataka, India. Pic: Srikaanth Sekar (Flickr CC)