Ways to reduce human-leopard conflicts

Safety measures

Ways to reduce human-leopard conflicts

Unlike tigers that prefer forest areas free from human and cattle populations, the Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca) has adapted to human dominated landscapes. Its preferred prey animals like hare, wild pigs and deer have diminished due to habitat fragmentation. Leopards have effectively learnt to move in and around villages and townships in search of food which now includes stray dogs, goats, cattle and chicken. Studies  show that the areas used by people from dawn to dusk are used by leopards from dusk to dawn. Leopards are found to be living in scrub forests, small patches of forests, private plantation groves and even sugarcane fields, where they rest and stay concealed during the day, and emerge at night to look for prey and mark their territory.

Recent estimates from the Wildlife Institute of India suggest that there could be 12,000 to 14,000 wild leopards in the country. Leopards are arboreal and climb trees to hide and rest. Their fur colour and rosette pattern help them camouflage in any landscape. Many leopards are being killed in India every year as they are increasingly found outside protected forests in agriculture and revenue lands around human settlements. 

As more rural areas fall prey to development, human populations are moving closer to agricultural areas, where leopards occupy sugarcane fields. This has resulted in an increased rate of conflict. In an attempt to mitigate this conflict, several leopards are being captured and translocated to different habitats by the Forest Department. But, leopards are territorial, and research confirms that leopards return to their original habitat even from hundreds of kilometres.

Rehabilitating leopards

In Junnar taluk of Pune district, there are five reservoirs for irrigation. The area has vast stretches of sugarcane fields and it is the centre of leopard-human conflicts in Maharashtra. Junnar Forest division of the Maharashtra Forest Department established a leopard centre at Manikdoh, called Manikdoh Leopard Rescue Centre (MLRC), for the rehabilitation of leopards in conflict.

In December 2007, the State Forest Department collaborated with Wildlife SOS to rehabilitate leopards housed at this rescue centre. There are about 75 volunteers trained in addressing human-leopard conflicts in Junnar taluk. Wildlife SOS, a conservation organisation, provides valuable keeper training in animal management, enclosure enrichment and nutrition management, a full time veterinarian and a rapid response team while also working with the local communities to mitigate human-leopard conflicts.  These volunteers are usually the first to reach any location where a human-leopard conflict situation is reported.

Wildlife SOS has provided various levels of training to enable volunteers to initiate rescue operations in a safe manner. Till the rapid response unit and the Forest Department officials arrive, the volunteers manage and pacify the crowd and attempt to provide passage for the trapped leopard, thereby preventing the conflict from escalating further. They also conduct regular awareness programmes in the villages where confidence building measures and avoidance behaviour guidelines like ‘make noise and use flashlight while walking in the dark’ are explained.

Villagers are also made aware about female leopard behaviour and how new born leopard cubs should not be disturbed. They are further advised not to pick up leopard cubs, as that would result in the mother becoming aggressive. Even if cubs are accidentally picked up by any villager, they must contact nearest forest office and Wildlife SOS, who would then take the cubs back to the same spot to re-unite  the cub with the mother. They sometimes play audio recordings of leopard cubs to lure the mother to return to the location to find the cubs she was separated from. In this manner, over 35 cubs have been re-united with respective mothers over last six years by Wildlife SOS and Forest teams.

Outreach programmes

Wildlife SOS in collaboration with the Forest Department and Vidya Atre, a researcher working with Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), has come up with an innovative idea of appointing 91 school children from Junnar as leopard ambassadors. These children take the lead role in assisting with the outreach, education and awareness programmes on human-leopard conflict.

The leopards rescued from conflict situations are brought to MLRC and subjected to a veterinary examination and are treated for any injuries. With the permission of the chief wildlife warden, the animal is released back in the wild. In case the leopard is not fit for release, it is provided an enclosure at the rehabilitation centre for lifetime care.

There are more than 30 leopards in the centre and each one has a microchip, and its behaviour and medical history are recorded. The team from MLRC are also called to places like Dhound, Sangli, Nasik and Thane to assist in addressing human-leopard conflicts.

(The author is former principal chief conservator of forests, Karnataka)

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