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Nature

22
May

Living with Leopards

One fall evening last year, six-year old Samruddhi Matale was playing on the dusty ground behind her house in a village near Mumbai in western India as her father sat chopping grass for cattle feed. Samruddhi walked behind the family’s three cows and crouched on the ground to urinate.

A leopard emerged from a neighbor’s field, clinched its powerful jaws around the girl’s neck and began dragging her into the surrounding sugarcane thicket. Samruddhi screamed. The cat sprinted for about a minute and then paused at a clearing in the cane. When Ramdas Matale reached the spot, he found his blood-covered daughter beside an adult leopard. Matale lunged at the animal with a sickle, but before he could strike, it abandoned its prey and fled into a dense wall of cane. Samruddhi was lucky. Leopard attacks on humans in this part of India are rare, but instances of children escaping alive are even rarer.

Matale kids with their father
Ramdas Matale sits with his children on their porch. His daughter, Samruddhi, middle, narrowly survived a leopard attack.

A frenzied motorcycle ride to the hospital in the next village, 18 stitches, and dozens of injections later, the girl was stable. The cat’s canines had left deep punctures on Samruddhi’s head and neck. When I met her at her home in Belha village last month, the only sign of the attack were four fingernail-sized scars.

“Today I have my child, but what if it had taken her away?” says Samruddhi’s mother, Vaishali Matale, who is sitting on the patio of their home as Samruddhi and her little brother play a few steps away. “There are two leopards and their cubs that live in these fields, and people keep seeing them all the time.”

Forest department officials responded to the incident by setting up two spring-loaded cages baited with chickens. No animals were snared in the trap, says local forest guard Renuka Sonattake. It could be that the leopard was lured into a similar cage in the past and has learnt from the experience, local forest officials and ecologists say.

martale-with-xray
Vaishali Matale holds up x-rays of her daughter's skull injuries, which were inflicted by a leopard.

People in the valleys of Maharashtra adjoining the Western Ghat mountain range have witnessed an unusually brutal spate of attacks in the last decade. Wild animals have killed 165 people in the state since 2008, according to data from the forest department. The conflicts suggest that leopards in India are thriving, venturing beyond the boundaries of protected forests and becoming fixtures in villages. Forest officials are struggling to deal with the conflicts even as new research is suggesting that the most common remedial method—translocation—may only make matters worse.

Four months after Samruddhi’s brush with the leopard, a three-year old girl in a neighboring village was attacked and killed. The girl belonged to a family of nomadic goat-herders who move from village to village, living in tents made of bamboo and tarp in fields along the way. On the fateful night, a leopard snuck in, grabbed the girl from where she lay sleeping, and dragged her away before the family could react. Villagers found her partially eaten body the next morning.

Forest rangers again placed a cage at the spot where the girl’s body was found. An adult female leopard walked into the trap the following night. Officials analyzed her scat and found human DNA—an indication that the caged cat may be a man-eater.

An Unsettling Pattern

Leopards usually attack livestock or dogs, and it’s unclear what triggers an individual to kill humans, says Vidya Athreya, an ecologist who has been studying leopards in this region for the last ten years. Dragging a sleeping child out of her bed is highly unusual, she says.

“It was a vicious attack. The leopard actually took her when she was sleeping next to her mother,” says Athreya, as she walks around four fiberglass trap cages in a plant nursery. The air is heavy with the distinct odor of leopard urine and feces. As she rounds a corner and looks into one of the enclosures, an adult leopard roars loudly and lunges at her, striking the frame with a force that rattles the entire cage. Athreya, a lean woman with cropped hair, doesn’t flinch.

“She is very likely the killer, and can’t be released into the wild again,” says Athreya, who is one of India’s most respected leopard ecologists. The state has two zoo-like centers meant to house captured leopards, and both are filled to capacity, so this female cat cannot be moved elsewhere. Athreya points to pugmarks—pawprints—on the ground leading from the cage down a gentle slope to a manmade lake hundred feet away. “Leopards come here at night to drink water, and they probably come up to the cage after catching her scent.”

Ecologist Vidya Athreya, right, with her assistant as they test receivers for radio collars. Athreya has been studying leopards in and around India's villages.

India is home to a rich diversity of species, from the majestic Bengal tiger to the Asiatic elephant and  the one-horned rhino. Most conservationists study these animals in the country’s 102 national parks and protected areas, but Athreya’s work focuses on animals living outside park boundaries, closer to civilization. For the past eight years, she has set up camera traps, fitted GPS collars on cats, analyzed thousands of scat samples, and interviewed scores of villagers to better understand how these cats live and thrive outside protected areas.

“A sign of the striking success of wildlife conservation in India is that animals are now in the phase of actually expanding beyond the protected areas and into the wild landscape,” says John Linnell, an ecologist at the Norwegian Institute of Nature Research who has been studying human-carnivore conflicts since 1995. “We’re seeing a lot of species living their whole lives in totally human-dominated landscapes.”

No one actually surveys leopards in India, so it is unclear how many there are. The country’s skewed conservation focus—nearly half of the $63 million annual wildlife budget went for the tiger protection—has meant that there is hardly any population data for other carnivores. Anecdotally, rangers have witnessed a shift in the cats’ range as they are increasingly found in human settlements. While leopards in villages are not unusual—there are even temples dedicated to tiger and leopard gods called waghobas–people say the spike in leopard attacks on humans is a relatively new phenomenon.

Searching for a Solution

It was in 2001 that villagers living near Junnar, a town about 150 kilometers east of Mumbai, noticed they had a serious problem with man-eaters. Over the next three years, the cats killed an average 17 people each year, more than four times the average in the preceding eight years. Half of the victims were children under 14. Soon after the first attack, Maharashtra’s state government responded by aggressively trapping leopards in the towns, villages, and crop fields, releasing them at first in protected forests about 40 kilometers (25 miles) away and later in other parts of the state .

Athreya, who did her graduate work at the University of Iowa studying strangler figs in tropical forests, found herself in Junnar just as the most intense period of the conflict was drawing to a close. Her husband, an astronomer, had just taken a job at the large radio telescope array outside town, and the couple had moved there with their two-year old daughter. The people of Junnar were terrified of the attacks, and the government was under immense pressure to remove all leopards spotted in the area, she recalls.

Athreya and a local wildlife researcher, Sanjay Thakur, got permission from the forest department to investigate the attacks. Thakur did the field-work, while Athreya helped analyze the data.

“When I was doing the Junnar project, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why the leopards were attacking people,” Athreya says over the phone one morning as she drove from her home in Pune city to meet forest department officials in a nearby town. She delved into the published literature and found a 1997 review by Norwegian researchers on translocation, the process of trapping animals in one place and releasing them elsewhere, a method used in several places around the world to control problem animals.

leopard-on-tree
A leopard looks down from its perch on a tree in southern India. Leopards in India are increasingly moving—and living—outside of protected areas.

The ecologists had concluded that, for the most part, translocation doesn’t work. In fact, moving a territorial animal such as a leopard or a tiger into a rival’s domain can disrupt the social hierarchy and induce conflict. Translocated animals try to return to their original territory and come close to human settlements during the journey, the study found. Further, being in a new environment stresses the animal, increasing the likelihood of conflict with people.

“If you don’t have this big wilderness where you can dump them, all you do is make a mess of it,” says Linnell, first author of the 1997 paper, over a Skype call from his home in Trondheim, Norway. “You get the problem out of sight, out of mind, and pass the problem on to somebody else.”

Problematic Relocations

After the first of the leopard attacks in 2001, the state government began promoting translocation as the way to curb the leopard “menace” and pacify people. In that one year alone, at least 40 leopards were captured from the villages and released in one of two forests at the edge of the district. But human attacks continued unabated, so local officials responded by moving the animals to forests in elsewhere in the state. The chief bureaucrat overseeing the operation claimed to have caught more than 100 leopards during this period, a feat for which he was awarded a gold medal by the Maharashtra state government, Rediff reported in July 2004.

Athreya’s analysis suggested that attacks are more likely to occur near the forests where the largest number of leopards had been released, according to a report submitted to the state government the following year. In other words, moving the animals simply transfers problem.

She presented her findings to senior forest officials in the region. “Some of the officers I met as part of my work did note that releases and captures increased the problems, but they kept with it because they didn’t have any other choice,” Athreya says.

Wildlife officials have used translocation as a strategy to address leopard-human conflicts in Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe, but it “never works,” says Laurence Frank, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley. “Most carnivore biologists would not translocate a predator because they know what will happen to it,” says Frank, who has spent 42 years studying wild predators in Africa. “This cruel practice is usually undertaken by wildlife departments or private individuals lacking knowledge of the species they are dealing with.”

When Athreya first got involved with the leopard study, no one knew what happened to the leopards after they were released into foreign sites. There was no way to know if they were returning to their original territory. So Athreya secured funding from the Norwegian government and, in 2009, began tracking seven leopards using GPS-collars. One of the first cats she collared traveled from the Western Ghats to a national park in Mumbai—nearly 120 kilometers (75 miles)—in less than a month.

“He walked across highways, railway stations, swam across a creek, and went to Mumbai,” Athreya says as we drive along a paved road lined with sugarcane farms, brick kilns, small hotels, and shops. “If the animal doesn’t want to stay, it doesn’t stay,”

Barriers for Conservation?

Athreya’s work comes as a global team of well-known ecologists are advocating fencing in large carnivore habitats as a cost-effective long-term strategy to conserve the animals. Annual management costs for lions in fenced and heavily protected areas is one-fourth that of lions in open landscapes, according to an influential paper published in the journal Ecology Letters, and co-authored by 58 leading lion ecologists.

“Nobody likes to keep animals behind fences, but given the reality and the economics, it’s the best solution for lions in some places,” says Frank, who was one of the co-authors. “I hate the idea but its time to be realistic.”

Such fences may not stop leopards, though, which are known to get past walls and fences with ease. Data from India also suggests that there is a threshold up to which people will tolerate dangerous animals in their backyard, and that needs to be explored further, Linnell says. He calls it the social carrying capacity.

“I really hate that extreme fencing idea because to me, personally, the interaction between people and wildlife is crucial,” Linnell says. The experience in India “showed that people still accepted that these animals have a right to live—not far away, but right here next to them. That’s a feeling that others need elsewhere in the world.”

Encroaching Farmland

Historically, leopards lived in the hills that surround the villages and dot the valleys adjacent to the Western Ghats, but the animals have moved down into the valley following the spread of sugarcane. The densely planted thickets provide an ideal cover for leopards to hunt dogs, pigs, and livestock. Sugarcane fields have “some of the biggest, fattest leopards you’ll see anywhere, and they’re living on dogs and goats,” says Linnell the Norwegian ecologist.

Today, those villages are marching firmly into prosperity, benefiting from the global trade in sugar. India is the second biggest sugarcane producer in the world, and one-fourth of its output comes from Maharashtra state. The farmed area has grown more six-fold since the 1970s, according to government statistics. Farmers in places like Belha and Junnar own expensive jersey cows and drive motorcycles and SUVs. There’s enough demand for mechanized equipment that global tractor giant John Deere has a showroom nearby.

Boy in a sugarcane field
A boy helps stack sugarcane that is ready for harvest. Sugarcane fields have expanded greatly in recent years and provide ideal cover for leopards.

Villagers say there seem to be more leopards in their yards than they remembered as children. In 2008, Athreya and her team set up camera traps close to people’s homes in several villages to quantify just how many leopards were living there. The traps captured 166 images of leopards, hyenas, and jungle cats in a single month. The valley is likely home to five leopards and five hyenas per 100 square kilometers, a density that’s comparable to some of India’s major national parks, according to their study published in March in PLoS One. Yet no human has been killed by a leopard in that area in at least ten years. In the entire district, about 12 people have lost their lives in the last three years, according to forest department officials. That includes the goatherd girl who was taken as she lay sleep.

Learning to Coexist

Back in Belha village, Samruddhi’s parents say they want the government to do something immediately—even if that means moving all the animals from their village and releasing them elsewhere.

“The government has a provision to punish any hunter who kills a leopard, but if our children are being caught by a leopard, what are we supposed to do?” asks Samruddhi’s mother Vaishali, who is sitting outside her house as her children play nearby. “Our children play in this area and the leopards even attack old people. The government has to do something about this.”

A few houses away, her neighbor, Rajendra Patil, says that most other people in the village have learned to adjust to the cats’ presence. “Many farmers here have lost a goat or a calf to a leopard, and the government pays a compensation as long as the carcass is found,” he says, walking down a dirt road with sugarcane fields on either side. “People who’ve lost an animal will complain, but the fact is that the leopards have been here for a long time—and they don’t cause much problems.”

Leopards can coexist alongside humans with few conflicts if they’re left to themselves and people take some basic precautions, Athreya says. These days, she spends a lot of time working with government officials, pushing for proactive measures to avoid conflict, such as assisting villagers in building leopard-proof livestock shelters. She advocates a “serious rethink” of conservation policy to help preserve wild populations in agricultural plantations and rural landscapes.

“These animals are here, and they are thriving, and people are interacting with them all the time,” Athreya says.

The villagers, for the most part, have learned to live with the cats. In the villages with camera traps, people recognize the connection between leopards and the sugarcane boom, says Sunetro Ghosal, a researcher based in Mumbai who studies the relationship between people and leopards. There is significant risk of physical harm and the occasional loss of livestock, but these conflicts are managed through cultural beliefs and social negotiations that have emerged through a history of sharing space with these large carnivores, he says. The government’s compensation program helps too.

“Simply having a leopard in a human landscape doesn’t equate to a conflict,” Ghosal says. “There are definitely other things going on—with the leopard adapting to our presence, and we adapting to its presence.”

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A photo of Lakshmi Narayan

Lakshmi Narayan

Lakshmi Narayan is a science writer and radio producer based in India who reports about science and health issues in the developing world. His work has appeared in TIME magazine, Deutsche Welle, Radio Netherlands, and others.