Man vs wild

Research

Leopards are unique large carnivores that are capable of living in human-dominated landscapes. Recent studies have shown that leopards occur at densities of about 1 adult per 20 sq km in human-dominated landscapes of nearly 200 humans per sq km.

Increasingly, leopards are being sighted in rural, semi-urban and even urban landscapes. Smaller than the tiger, and hence having lower metabolic requirements, leopards usually prey on smaller animals. Being a highly adaptable species, leopards can even survive on a prey base of domestic and feral animals, like dogs, goats, and pigs. This ability to survive in close proximity of humans often brings them into conflict with local communities.  

Most leopards, like other large carnivores, are shy of humans, will avoid them in most cases and only prey on feral dogs and pigs. Conflicts arise when leopards start preying on livestock, causing severe economic losses to local communities. In some cases, it turns out to be a huge problem when some animals turn man-eaters.

Such animals may deliberately attack humans without any provocation, prey on children, and even enter homes at night to attack humans. Loss of livestock or human lives results in decreased tolerance towards leopards, leading to retaliatory killing of leopards. Human-leopard conflicts have reached severe proportions in the past few years.

Although the problem exists throughout India, some states have been more affected than others. In the last decade, such conflicts resulted in 203 humans and 550 leopards losing lives in Uttarakhand alone. Himachal Pradesh has reported 133 leopard attacks on humans in the last three years, 15 of them being fatal.  

Dealing with the conflict

The capture and translocation of the leopards causing these problems has been a common practice in various parts of the country. However, such measures did not alleviate the intensity of conflict in the affected areas. Recent scientific studies on leopards in human-dominated landscapes showed that capture-translocation is an ineffective way of dealing towards such leopards.

A study by Vidya Athreya, on radio collared leopards in agricultural landscapes of Maharashtra, found that translocation of leopards actually increased the frequency of leopard attacks. This is because leopards, like other big cats, are territorial and exhibit amazing homing instincts. Many leopards will traverse through densely populated rural or semi-urban landscapes to reach back to their original territories. As a result, translocation often results in shifting the conflict to otherwise unaffected areas. Also, the space vacated by a translocated animal is likely to be soon taken up by another wild leopard.  

On the basis of these scientific findings, the state issued directives to decrease arbitrary captures and translocation of leopards. Instead, guidelines to deal with human-leopard conflict focused on building emergency response mechanisms and increasing awareness amongst stakeholders to deal with conflict situations.

The successful implementation of these guidelines in Maharashtra brought down the number of attacks on humans from 218 (between 2000 and 2005) to 34 (2006-2010) and the number of human deaths from 66 to 6. Notably, in these areas, the state forest department trapped only 38 leopards between 2005 and 2009, compared to 276 from 2001-2005.  

In response to severe conflict, other severely affected states such as Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, and Jammu & Kashmir also devised human-leopard conflict mitigation guidelines. Measures to mitigate human-leopard conflict however, remained state-specific with no clear cut policy across states. In 2007, the Ministry of Environment and Forests jointly hosted a workshop with Wildlife Trust of India and International Fund for Animal Welfare to design a management policy for human-leopard conflicts.

The participants included senior forest department officials from six states, members of non-governmental organisations, national and international scientists and veterinarians. The main suggestions from various experts underscored the need for trained crisis management teams, better coordination within the government, greater local community involvement and more scientific research on human-leopard conflict.

On April 18, 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Forests released a comprehensive set of guidelines that codify best practices to deal with human-leopard conflict. Awareness generation is the first step to educate local communities, media, and officials of various government departments regarding the complexity of the issue. Awareness campaigns are expected to highlight the fact that leopards, being highly adaptable, naturally use human-habitations.

Presence and use of human-dominated landscapes by leopards does not necessarily entail conflict with humans. Small steps, such as building leopard-proof livestock sheds can decrease economic losses. Proper garbage disposal can decrease population of leopard preys such as dogs and feral pigs. Better sanitation measures, such as closed toilets, can help decrease accidental attacks by avoiding human-leopard contact.

The second important component is establishing trained teams to handle conflict emergencies. Two levels of teams, the primary response (PR) team and the emergency response (ER) team have been suggested. The PR team should consist of local community representatives trained in crowd management, who will secure the area before the arrival of the ER team.

The ER team, comprising of forest department officials and trained veterinary staff, will deal with the animal in a situation-specific manner. Different kinds of management measures required for leopards trapped in open, closed and semi-confined areas have been outlined, along with best practices for handling and care of captured animals. The guidelines also emphasise the need for quick and effective payment of ex-gratia in case of loss of livestock, injuries or human deaths due to leopard depredation.

The third component of the guidelines underscores the use of latest technology and scientific know-how to improve efficacy of capture and handling of the animal. The guidelines discourage arbitrary removal and translocation of leopards, as suggested by the studies done by Vidya Athreya and her team in Maharashtra. There is also an emphasis on mapping of conflict-prone areas, scientific monitoring of problem leopards, and evaluation of the efficacy of mitigations measures, with independent scientists and experts.  

The way forward

Human-animal conflict, especially with large carnivores, is a complex issue that needs cooperation and ingenuity for finding a solution. These guidelines from the Ministry of Environment and Forests are based on intensive work done by several scientists and institutions. They outline an overarching framework for designing site-specific mitigation measures. These should be adapted to design locale-specific mitigation measures.

Affected states should translate these guidelines into the local language for distribution. Wherever needed, adequately trained and properly equipped primary and emergency response teams should be constituted immediately. Successful mitigation will depend on collaborations between and among state departments, wildlife scientists and NGOs.

Together with scientists, it is necessary for states to devise long-term strategies to evaluate the success of the current and future mitigation measures that they plan to institute.

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