Living with leopards

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In September 2015, news of the first ever leopard population estimation was published. Including the felines living outside reserves, their population has been estimated to be anywhere between 12,000 and 14,000. The leopard count was carried out along with tiger census in the year 2014. Scat survey and camera trapping in 18 states resulted in numbers close to 7, 872 leopards. Yadvendradev Jhala, a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), which conducted the survey, has stated publicly that, “There are leopards outside the areas we covered during the survey. Based on these numbers, we estimate India’s total leopard population to be in the range of 12,000 to 14,000.”

The areas covered include Western and Eastern Ghats, central India and the Gangetic plains. However, it doesn’t include West Bengal, the eight north-east states and parts of Uttarakhand. The report is not available on the WII website yet. “The report is not out in the public domain, so cannot really comment.

However, human use areas were not sampled and my work shows that there are substantial leopard populations in human use areas. So, it is likely to bean under estimate,” says Vidya Athreya, a research associate with WCS-India.

Not a number game
While the numbers remain ambiguous, what we need to understand is the current state of leopards in India. Scanning for leopard stories across a few national dailies in the month of September alone gives out these facts — four dead, five captured. There are also reports of 10 incidents of human-leopard interaction. Right from having its head stuck in pot, to facing a “cage” for just being spotted — the state of leopards in India is quite distressing.

What is fascinating here is of the 10 “conflict” incidents reported — only two cases were genuine. In other words, “spotting” a leopard cannot be termed as “conflict”, and in these cases eight were just reports of leopard movements — no one was hurt, or remotely came face to face with the animal. Sadly, these leopards in most cases have been captured and relocated to other places, which could again lead to further interactions.

“Like humans, leopards are extremely adaptable to all kinds of places. These
generalists can survive quite well in human use areas like they do in forests. However, what is more urgent is recognising this and then acting on this. Right now, the dominant way of thinking is that leopards live in forests so no management or research attention is given to human use areas where they live,” states Vidya, adding, “Care should also be taken to ensure that these leopards don’t cause harm to our livestock. If we do so, then we would be successful in managing leopard populations to a large extent. If we do not, then we would be seriously affecting the lives of the people as well as the leopards from  an ever increasing intensity of problems they face due to the presence of the
other.”

Is it really possible for leopards and humans to co-exist? Affirmative, say wildlife researchers in a recently released report based on conclusions of a 15-year research on leopards in India. A pattern of such a transformation is being documented and set as an example in the country today. The Sanjay Gandhi National Park, with one of the highest densities of leopards in India, marred by a history of human-leopard interactions, recently proudly declared itself “conflict free” for almost a year.

“All the stake holders led by the Forest Department decided to engage with everybody else, use everybody’s help — thereby reaching out to scientists, citizens, media, police, and institutes like the Indian Institue of Technology around the Park. This action of taking everybody on board really helped increase the knowledge of people about leopards, thereby decreasing the fear. Recently, an individual posted a picture of a leopard outside office, on Facebook, demanding its capture. It was amazing to see many people responding to the message and advising knowledgeable engagement, dissuading capture. A meeting was held by the Park authorities and other groups, leading to consensus on not capturing the leopard. It was a proud moment,” explains Vidya.

So, what do wildlife census, study or research reports really mean to the common man? The responses are varied. Here are some: “My friends and I watched the mother and cub from our apartment. It was quite cool. But we will be scared if there were many,” said a class four student living in an apartment on Kanakapura road, Bengaluru. A farmer from a village in Tumakuru says, “I recollect a leopard being relocated after it entered our
neighbouring village. I am shocked to know that there are so many leopards in the vicinity.” While another farmer in Mangala, a village in Bandipur Tiger Reserve says, “We see leopards often. I had no idea they were even threatened.” A wildlife photographer expressed enthusiasm, “This is great news. I would love to photograph leopards and contribute to conserving the species.”

Inclusive strategy
While wildlife news is being perceived and accepted in different ways by the
common man — how can scientists go a step further to make it more inclusive and
important to the general public? “Many scientists are just content with publishing their data in scientific journals. But a few, who venture into policy interventions and disseminate their knowledge with the public through popular articles in the local media, are actually making a very major contribution to conservation,” states Praveen Bharghav, trustee, Wildlife First.

A new survey conducted by Com Res for the UK’s Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit proves that British pubic is increasingly aware of climate change consensus among scientists. The media has received brownie points for this feat for conveying accurate facts and science-based inferences. Frequently engaging with all stakeholders including the media has paid off in a great way, affirms Vidya. “Our initial analysis of media reports before and after media workshops held in Mumbai indicate substantial difference in the way science is being reported now. There is a lot of hope especially in urban setting where people are connected via social media and even print media.” As psychologist Anne Roe once said, “Nothing in science has any value to the society if it is not communicated.” And communicated accurately.

The article was published in the Deccan Herald

 

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