Roads Emerging as a Critical Threat to Leopards in India?

by Gubbi S., Poornesha H. C., Daithota A. & Nagashettihalli H | Cat News 60

This article originally appeared in Cat News 60 – Spring 2014 issue.

Leopards (Panthera pardus) face severe threats from poaching, loss of habitat and killing in retaliation to conflict. However, in India a new threat appears to be emerging in the form of vehicle accident mortalities. In the past 60 months 23 leopards have been recorded as killed due to road accidents in the southern Indian state of Karnataka alone. When roads overlap with important wildlife habitats, considerable scrutiny and critical conservation planning is urgently required.

Leopards are one of the widely distributed wild cats in the world with nine subspecies found in varied habitats across its entire range. Loss of habitat, poaching and retaliatory killing are recognized as the key threats to leopards in its entire range. The species is currently categorized as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List with some subspecies identified as Critically Endangered (Henschel et al. 2008, IUCN 2013).

India hosts substantial leopard numbers though there are no nationwide estimates available. In India, leopards survive in protected areas (PAs), multiple use forests (legally termed as reserved forests) and even in highly human dominated landscapes. The threats within India are similar as in other parts of the leopards’ range.

India’s phenomenal economic growth (~8%) over the last two decades was based on an expansion of physical infrastructure such as roads, railway, power and communication networks for improved commerce. Roads, some of which pass through ecologically important sites, constitute a threat resulting not only in habitat fragmentation but also in direct mortalities of wildlife due to collisions with vehicles. In India, the challenge comes primarily from the conversion of existing small roads with low-volume traffic into high-speed highways, while a few new roads also opening up remote locations (Gubbi et al. 2012). In addition, there has been a rapid growth of motor vehicles at 10.5% during 2002-2012 (MoSRTH 2012).

In the recent years leopard mortalities due to vehicular collision seems to be increasing. In the southern Indian state of Karnataka (191,976 sq km) alone, from secondary sources (newspaper reports and forest department records), we recorded a total of 23 leopards killed in road accidents (two more were killed by trains) during the period July 2009 – June 2014 (see map of roadkills and details of leopards killed) amounting to one leopard roadkill every three months. Of these, 19 leopards have died in locations outside PAs (see attached image) highlighting the threat of vehicular traffic to leopards outside PAs.

In addition to the loss of these big cats, principal prey species for leopards in India, Axis deer (Axis axis), sambar (Rusa unicolor), black-naped hare (Lepus nigricollis), bonnet macaque (Macaca radiata) and langur (Seminopithecus spp.) are some of the commonly killed species in vehicle collisions (Prakash 2012).

In India, the National Wildlife Action Plan (2002-2016) specifically prescribes regulation and mitigation measures for threats posed by roads. However there have been few serious attempts to implement the policy on-ground. On the academic front, the sub-discipline of road ecology is very nascent and only a handful of studies have examined impacts of roads on wildlife (Vidya & Thuppil 2010, Seshadri & Ganesh 2011, Gubbi et al. 2012).

But there may be little time to understand the impacts as the growth of this threat has been very rapid and conventional long-term monitoring programs are time and resource consuming (Lee et al. 2010). Often timely conservation action may be necessary even in settings where data are sparse as it is invariably harder to reverse the damages caused by these permanent structures than to prevent them.

Though the efforts of economic growth are laudable, in key biological areas there is no escape from prioritizing investments on wildlife conservation and emphasis being on elimination of the threat through better land use planning.

In the global context, road ecology studies and Environment Impact Assessments generally prescribe mitigation measures including slowing traffic speed, providing wildlife crossing structures and increasing driver awareness. In the Indian context, where PAs are typically small (mean area < 300 sq km), it may not only be ecologically wise, but also economically viable to consider even more fundamental choices, such as the realignment of roads passing through PAs. Outside PAs suitable mitigation measures need to be implemented.

As there is no data about leopard road kills we hope this dataset could act as a baseline for future comparison. It will also be important to monitor mortalities due to vehicular collisions to assess their impacts on leopard populations especially outside PAs.

Acknowledgements

We thank Whitley Fund for Nature and Kaplan Graduate Award for their kind support for carrying out our work on leopards. Pragna Nag, Giridhar Kulkarni, Aparna Kolekar and Abhishek helped in data compilation for which we are grateful.

References

    • Henschel P., Hunter L., Breitenmoser U., Purchase N., Packer C., Khorozyan I., Bauer H., Marker L., Sogbohossou E. & Breitenmoser-Wursten, C. 2008. Panthera pardus. Available at: www. iucnredlist.org IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.1.
    • IUCN. 2013. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. Downloaded on 16 October 2013.
    • Gubbi S., Poornesha H.C. & Madhusudan M. D. 2012. Impact of vehicular traffic on the use of highway edges by large mammals in a South Indian wildlife reserve. Current Science 102, 1047-1051.
    • Lee T., Quinn M. & Duke D. 2010. A local community monitors wildlife along a major transportation corridor. In Safe passages; Highways, wildlife and habitat connectivity. Beckman J.P, Clev¬enger A.P, Huijser M.P & Hilty J.A. (Eds). Island Press, Washington, DC, USA. pp. 277-291.
    • MoSRTH Ministry of Shipping, Road Transport and Highways. 2012. Road Transport Year Book 2011-2012. Government of India, New Delhi.
    • Prakash A. B. 2012. A study on the impacts of highways on wildlife in Bandipur Tiger Reserve. National Centre for Biological Sciences. Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bangalore, India.
    • Seshadri K.S. & Ganesh T. 2011. Faunal mortality on roads due to religious tourism across time and space in protected areas: a case study from south India. Forest Ecology and Manage¬ment 262, 1713-1721.
    • Vidya T. N. C. & Thuppil V. 2010. Immediate behavioural responses of humans and Asian ele¬phants in the context of road traffic in southern India. Biological Conservation 143, 1891-1900.

Citation: Gubbi S., Poornesha H. C., Daithota A. & Nagashettihalli H. 2014. Roads emerging as a critical threat to leopards in India? Cat News 60, 30-31.

About the author

Gubbi S., Poornesha H. C., Daithota A. & Nagashettihalli H
Sanjay Gubbi represents Panthera, New York, NY 10018, USA, and Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), Mysore, India. All other authors are from NCF.


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