In many parts of India, leopards live in close proximity to human habitations with surprisingly low levels of conflict. They are capable of living and breeding even in degraded forests, plantations and croplands, and manage to survive on a variety of small wild prey, domestic dogs, livestock and feral animals. Rural folk in many of these areas are often remarkably tolerant to the presence of these wild and potentially dangerous predators; but the threat to human lives even if rare is real. Between 1999 and 2005, 201 deaths and 902 human injuries due to leopard attacks were reported from Maharashtra alone. Unfortunately, in the absence of a clear cut, science-driven policy to tackle such incidents, Forest Departments throughout the country often resort to capturing leopards from human dominated conflict areas and releasing them in the nearest forest. Now, a scientific study by Vidya Athreya and others reveals that this ‘cure’ may be worse than the disease. Here are some important insights gleaned from their study.
In Maharashtra’s Junnar region, agricultural landscapes with a human density of 185 people/sq.km. have been known to harbour leopards. The region is devoid of wild ungulates, but domestic animals present include cattle, water buffalo, goats, fowl, dogs and cats, as well as feral pigs and dogs. In an 8-year period from 1993 to 2001, 33 attacks by leopards on people were recorded, averaging about 4 attacks a year.
In the year starting February 2001, a program of translocating leopards began with a view to mitigating the conflict. Initially 29 leopards were captured from human dominated landscapes and released in the only natural forests in the region – the slopes of the adjoining Western Ghats, particularly, Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary, which, at about 131 sq.km., has the greatest area of natural forest in the region, and Malshej Ghat, which is a small forested patch of about 30 sq km that lies at the junction of Junnar and Ahmednagar forest divisions. These sites are accessible by road and are less densely populated by people, which makes them preferred release sites for leopards trapped elsewhere. More leopards were captured from other districts and also released here.
The study by Athreya and her colleagues reveals that the translocation resulted in an increase in leopard attacks on people in the vicinity of the release sites. In the three year translocation period from 2001 to 2003, leopard attacks rose to 17 per year (from an average of 4 per year for the 8-year period before translocation began), a whopping 325% increase. Attacks on livestock too went up substantially. In the period between February 2000 to January 2001, before translocation began, there were 106 attacks on livestock. During the 3 years of the translocation programme the average number of attacks on livestock went up to 166 per year.
The study showed that leopards had lived in densely populated areas in Junnar with relatively few attacks on people until translocations began. Further indication that translocation did result in human attacks came from information from microchipped leopards. When some of the Junnar leopards were translocated over 200 km away, to Yaval and Radhanagari wildlife sanctuaries, people were attacked near both sanctuaries by the translocated leopards, which could be identified by the microchips. Although wild leopards occurred near the release sites, no attacks on people were reported in these areas before the release of the translocated leopards. In Kenya too it has been reported that attacks on people by translocated leopards occurred near leopard release sites.
In the present study it was seen that attack frequency increased in Junnar following nearby releases of leopards and decreased when leopards were removed for releases far away; that attacks became more lethal when the number of leopards introduced from other districts increased; and that attacks were most likely to occur in the regions where the largest number of leopards had been introduced from other areas.
Translocation has been used worldwide to manage carnivore species that are potentially dangerous to humans. However, recent reviews suggest that it can have undesirable effects. Most post-translocation studies have made several inferences:
- Translocated individuals may return to the area from which they were captured within a relatively short time.
- Carnivores such as leopards are territorial. Those translocated to a forest that already harbours resident territorial individuals, tend to exit the area and move into human dominated landscapes where they again get into conflict.
- Removal of problem animals does not necessarily decrease the incidence of conflict at the site of removal in the long term since the territores thus vacated are filled by transient leopards.
- Translocating problem leopards to other regions may simply transfer the conflict to the release site.
- Translocation procedures may trigger behavioural changes – including inreased aggression due to stress – since they involve capture and close interaction with humans during days or weeks in captivity, and may lead to loss of fear of humans. All these factors, many which we do not yet fully understand, perhaps led to the substantial increase in attacks on humans (by 325%) in Junnar following the large scale translocation programme.
So what are the alternatives for dealing with leopards living where we do not expect them to be?
Leopards are adaptable predators, adept at living close to humans as long as food and cover are available. In many rural areas it may be impossible and – some may argue – unnecessary to try and eliminate them entirely, since leopards have been living in human landscapes with minimum attacks on people. Translocating them to nearby forested areas only increases the chances of attacks on people near the release sites, as seen in this study. Therefore the study suggests that in chronic, low-intensity conflict areas, it is important that the existing tolerance is maintained by:
- Improving techniques to protect livestock: Leopards are very versatile and can get through even a small opening in a livestock pen. If livestock owners are made aware of this and provided with practical and relatively inexpensive ‘leopard proof’ designs for livestock pens and sheds, it could reduce their losses.
- Lowering the number of feral animals in areas with a high potential for conflict: If farmers protect their livestock, their own losses will decrease. But around towns and villages where there is a lot of filth, feral dogs and pigs thrive, attracting leopards to these very high density human congregations. This creates a situation with a very high potential for conflict. In such areas, it is important that we reduce organic filth so that feral dog and pig populations decrease, thereby decreasing the attractiveness of the area for leopards.
- A robust and timely compensation/insurance scheme administered by the local community.
Finally, is there a practical alternative to translocation?
The two other options the authors mention are:
- Lethal control (ie., put down/euthanize the problem animal
- Permanent captivity
However even these are not as simple and straightforward as they may sound. Indian legislation makes lethal control virtually impossible in conflict situations (lethal control has been banned since 1972). Further, lethal control may not reduce the density of a carnivore in an area because, as mentioned earlier, transient individuals may immediately occupy the vacated territories.
As for permanent captivity, maintaining animals caught in the wild in perpetuity creates economic, logistical, and animal-welfare problems in addition to the vacant areas being filled up by the transients.
In a personal communication, lead author Vidya Athreya says “what we now know is that these animals avoid people and are not inclined to attack them. Therefore the focus should be on reducing the chances of people and these ‘rural area leopards’ from physically bumping into each other. This would be possible if we decreased the attractiveness of a human dominated landscape to wild carnivores like leopards, hyaenas and wolves by reducing food and prey availability (poultry waste, feral pigs and dogs). Ultimately it is in our hands to keep our villages and towns clean so that feral animal populations are not supported by our garbage. This will decrease the incursion of wild carnivores like leopards into village and town in search of prey”.
Original source for this article: Translocation as a Tool for Mitigating Conflict with Leopards in Human-Dominated Landscapes of India by Vidya Athreya, Morten Odden, John D. C. Linnell and K. Ullas Karanth. Conservation Biology, 2010.