India is a fascinating country. Not only is it is home to the largest number of languages, religions and cultures but also supports some of the richest biodiversity areas in the world. If we consider just the large carnivores, India has 4 species of large cats, 4 bears and 6 in the dog family. If we compare this to all of Europe, they have only 4 species of large carnivores. Even at a human density of more than 300 people per sq km and severe pressures on land, India still retains most of its wildlife species, even the potentially dangerous ones. The reason might be due to the tolerance Indians show for other life forms. It is evident in the way animals, domestic or wild, are positively incorporated into our culture, religion and life. Tolerance is something we take for granted but is required for the persistence of the charismatic, big wildlife. Simply put, wild animals will remain only if the local people let them remain.
In rural North America and parts of Europe, wild carnivores like the wolf and bear often invoke negative sentiments among the local people. These animals were virtually wiped out by the mid 20th century due to state supported extermination programmes where rewards were offered for each carnivore killed. This mind set changed and the focus has shifted to their conservation. As a result the wolves, mountain lions, and bears, are all making a slow comeback. In the meantime the local people who had forgotten how to live with these animals now protest strongly against their return. In India the extermination of a dangerous species was never part of our ethos. Although wild animals were hunted for sport or food, the intention has never been to wipe out the entire species because they were considered dangerous. In fact even today many of our tribal societies worship animals and regard losses to wild animals as part of nature’s cycle. This tolerance is already entrenched in our society.
What can change this tolerance are attacks on human by these animals. Although thousands of people die due to road accidents and 30000 die from rabies transmitted by domestic dogs each year in India without inducing much comment from society, deaths due to elephants, tigers or leopards cause a large public outcry and receive glaring media coverage. In the face of administrative apathy and policy constraint on action, such attacks result in retaliation by the local people towards the entire species. So when leopards kill livestock and people have to deal with a non-functional administrative mechanism and time consuming compensation schemes, frustration often leads them to resort to poison to kill any leopard in that area.
This problem of human wildlife conflict will never be resolved in India unless there is a drastic shift in the understanding of the policy makers, media, local people and conservationists. Even today we expect wildlife to live only in our National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries. However, these comprise only 5% of the area of India making it impossible to confine all our wildlife inside these small islands of forest. To compound the problem, all the large wildlife species are biologically programmed to move large distances. Information from radio collared elephants show that they regularly move from West Bengal to Assam and back again, dispersing tigers have moved 400 km, Asiatic Lions move over hundreds of kilometers from Gir Sanctuary to other areas outside, leopards have also been seen to move more than 100 km. When moving such large distances, these animals do not have any option but to use human dominated landscapes.
We humans even “assist” these movements by providing food to these animals outside the protected areas. For animals like the deer, monkeys, elephants and wild pigs, crops provide easy food whereas the large cats, wolves and bears are attracted to the cattle, goats, feral dogs and pigs in our countryside. This overlap in space usage between potentially dangerous species of wildlife, and humans sets the stage for conflict. The people who are affected are not like you and me, but poor, often marginal people who rely on farming, animal husbandry and dairy farming for their livelihoods. How the conflict plays out depends on our management of this situation.
Wild animals are inherently scared of humans and attacks are usually a result of accidents, when man and animal bump into each other in difficult situations. The response of a frightened cornered animal is to attack and then flee. However when a wild animal chases the person with an intent to kill, and drags or eats the body then the matter takes a very serious turn. These instances are an exception rather than the norm. Recent research on elephants and large cats shows that intentional attacks are usually due to biologically inappropriate methods being used to deal with these animals. If the situation is managed well, human deaths can be largely avoided.
Take the case of the leopard in India. Since it is commoner than the endangered tiger and Asiatic Lion, it is implicated in the largest number of attacks on people. In fact its name is often synonymous in the media as a man-eater. What is interesting is that for the most part leopards live without attacking people. Our recent work has found a density of 12 adult leopards in 100 sq km living among human densities of 200 people per sq km, in a human dominated landscape devoid of forests. No human death has occurred here due to leopard attacks. More interestingly, we have found that attacks on people are an aberration governed by complex factors which require us to increase our level of understanding.
Leopards are the most adaptable of the large cats and typify wildlife that lives outside forests. Leopards have always lived outside forests, be it tea-gardens, fringes of forests, in croplands and they have been reported even from urban areas. Since we have not yet accepted that non-wilderness areas can support wildlife, the public, managers and media expect all leopards to be confined within forests and so leopards found outside forested areas are often trapped and moved to a nearby forest. Our work also found that leopards which had been living in village areas without attacking people started attacking people when they were released away from their territory. This was likely due to the stress they face during capture, release in an unknown area and we also found many instances of translocated leopards homing back to where they were caught from.
Increasing research is indicating that large cats have strong homing instincts; a leopard in Africa walked back 400 km to its site of capture, taking a year to do so. In a populous country like India, a lost leopard navigating through unfamiliar territory is a recipe for disaster. Our findings also indicate that most sites which have chronic intentional attacks on people by leopards are within 100 km of release sites. Furthermore, it appears that all areas where leopard attacks on people occur have some form of intervention; either capture and release or killing of the leopard. Uttarakhand well exemplifies this. Since British times leopards have been killed in large numbers in this state and large numbers of people have been killed by leopards as well. This should be a wake up call that this management strategy is not working and we need to change the way we work so that human lives can be saved (not to mention the lives of many leopards).