As the most abundant of the big cats of India, the leopard generally manages quite well, living quite close to habitations unobtrusively. A recent study in the Pune region recorded a density of 12 adult leopards in a 100 sq km, human-dominated landscape with a density of 200 people per sq km. Happily, there was no report of fatal leopard attacks in the study area.
What then could be the cause for the seemingly large number of encounters involving the spotted cats and humans in some parts of the country? The hill temple of Tirumala, encircled by forests, has recently witnessed more than one instance of leopards creating panic among pilgrims. There are similar distressing episodes of the carnivore crossing the path of humans in hill estates and agricultural areas, and even suburbs of cities such as Mumbai and Chennai.
Invariably, such incidents lead to retaliation by terrified local communities and tragically, in some instances, the cat does not survive the encounter. This is a sad course of events because it is largely an avoidable conflict. It can be mitigated effectively if State governments look at scientific evidence on leopard behaviour and work to reduce man-animal confrontations.
Unlike other wild cats such as tigers, a large number of leopards live outside forests and protected areas. Their density depends on the abundance of prey. As scientific research done at the Kaati Trust in Pune shows, the increasing availability of a large number of cattle and dogs is proving to be a major attraction for leopards. It is possible, therefore, that pilgrims walking up the Tirumala hills at night are drawing the cats to the monkeys and dogs they feed.
It is useful to remember that although leopards avoid humans, a startling encounter can provoke an attack. Moreover, leopards that have been captured and released in the wild, away from their previous territory, are known to turn aggressive. Studies have tracked them walking even a few hundred kilometres back to the site of capture. The research clearly shows that conflict mitigation requires a scientific, community-oriented model.
Here, it would be worth looking at the Jammu and Kashmir programme, supported by the wildlife authorities. It relies on a core group of trained youth who quickly move to the scene of a leopard appearance, enable the animal to find its way out, and thus prevent a violent confrontation. An insurance-based compensation scheme for lost livestock, on the lines of the one successfully tried out for the snow leopard in the Himalayan region, may also reduce animosity towards the species.
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