Among the range of attributes that represent India is the little-known, seldom-acknowledged diversity of carnivore species it harbors. The country has 23% of the world’s terrestrial carnivore species. While popular discourse typically links large carnivores to forested reserves or large inviolate spaces, many of India’s carnivore species have historically shared spaces and adapted to using human modified landscapes. A recent study by researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society-India, Centre for Wildlife Studies, Foundation for Ecological Research And Learning, University of Florida and Maharashtra State Forest Department explored the land-sharing potential of large carnivores like leopards, Indian wolves and striped hyenas in human-use landscapes of western Maharashtra.
The study was conducted across a ~89,000 sq. km landscape dominated by semi-arid areas, agricultural fields, human settlements and trace amounts of forests. In fact, protected areas comprised a mere 3% of the landscape. The assessment combined interviews with forest department staff and statistical modeling methods to understand the patterns of carnivore distributions. The study found that leopards occupied 57%, wolves occupied 64% and hyenas occupied 75% of the landscape. Factors like agricultural land-use, built-up areas, domestic livestock and presence of wild prey species influenced the carnivores’ distribution patterns.
Results from this study challenge our idea of wilderness and wild animals. Leopards, which are perceived as ‘forest’ species, have co-adapted with evolving landscapes to inhabit croplands that offer adequate cover and refuge. Similarly, wolves that typically inhabit open grasslands and scrublands now use cultivated lands with seasonal agriculture. Their persistence in human-use and human-modified areas is indicative of (1) the resilience of these carnivores in the face changing land-use practices, and (2) the‘conservation-enabling’ nature of these landscapes, where people and carnivores have historically co-occurred and continue to do so.
Conservation and management narratives in India have hitherto focused almost exclusively on forested national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Separating wilderness and human-use areas is a common administrative model, and this makes us ill-equipped to deal with issues of people and wildlife outside designated protected areas. While protected areas are important for conserving certain species, insights from this study compel us to broaden our perspective, and rethink our approach to conservation of carnivores like wolves, leopards and hyenas, and the lands that they co-own with people.
Citation: Majgaonkar, I, Vaidyanathan, S, Srivathsa, A, Shivakumar, S, Limaye, S, Athreya, V. Land‐sharing potential of large carnivores in human‐modified landscapes of western India. Conservation Science and Practice. 2019;e34.