Leopards have been coming closer and closer to human settlements in India, causing panicked mobs to attack the leopards. Discover why these animal encounters are happening, and what can be done to stop the violent responses. — Global Animal

A leopard laying on a branch. Photo Credit: Gir India

DNA India, Janaki Lenin

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It seems like open season on leopards. Over the last two months, leopards accused of attacking people in Haryana, Maharashtra and Orissa, have been killed by hysteric mobs. On December 18, a leopard attacked three farmers in a village near Gurgaon, Haryana. Panicky villagers hammered it with iron rods and lathis, and later, one of them shot it dead.

On January 9, in Karad, Maharashtra, a leopard was spotted atop a house. When a crowd of people gathered, the cat snuck into an empty building. Instead of trapping it inside, the mob stoned it. The angered cat charged out and in the ensuing melee, six people were injured.

The leopard collided with a man, and was shot by a police official. A few days later, on January 13, a leopard was spotted in a forest plantation, about 5km from Bhubaneswar. Before the forest officials could arrive, a mob beat it to death, reportedly instigated by a local television reporter who wanted dramatic visuals.

Conservationists have urged the National Board for Wildlife, National Tiger Conservation Authority, and the Ministry of Environment and Forests to act against the people involved. In virtually all the cases reported by the press, the leopards were provoked to attack; left alone, they would have quietly skulked away.

One way of preventing an excitable mob from harassing a cornered animal is to impose curfew until the animal is safely out of the way. The other is for the police and forest departments to work in tandem. The former controls the crowd while the latter either traps or tranquilises the animal.

It is often surmised that leopards “stray” into villages and towns because infrastructure projects such as dams and mines deprive them of home and prey. Some activists have called for the restoration of connectivity between forest fragments and a stop to further forest loss. These are inherently sound conservation goals, but we also need to know what causes such man-animal encounters?

Leopard researcher Vidya Athreya carried out research in the agricultural fields of Junnar, near Pune, and Akola district in eastern Maharashtra and has some lessons in ending the man-animal conflicts.

The foremost learning is that it is not the absence prey inside the forests, but the abundance of prey in the towns that encourages leopards (and wolves and hyenas) to live alongside humans. It is futile to manage leopards without first cleaning up the garbage and thereby controlling the numbers of stray dogs and pigs who live off the garbage. Moreover, livestock must be secured in paddocks for the night, which the Akola people now do and hence there are no conflicts.

Elsewhere, when leopards are spotted in the fields, the forest department hauls the animals away to a forest. But this has been found to pose a threat to human life. In Junnar, in the early 2000s, when leopards that had not hurt anyone were pre-emptively captured and relocated, they began attacking people. Why such a seemingly benign action provokes the animal into attacking remains unknown. Despite this evidence, relocating leopards remains the tool of choice.

As juvenile leopards reach adulthood, these highly territorial animals need to find new land to claim as their own. It is only natural that they explore agricultural areas adjoining forests, where there is food and shelter. If left unmolested, they may settle down to live with humans without causing a problem.

The irrigation projects of the mid-1980s changed cropping patterns in this part of Maharashtra: tall, dense sugarcane stands began to dominate the landscape.

This is also the time when the locals say that leopards began to live amongst them. Yet, over the last 20 years, the people suffered little anxiety. Astonishingly, leopards are even hunting in Akola town because of the concentration of stray dogs and feral pigs. Studying situations such as this, we’ve learnt that leopards are quite at home in the absence of forest and wild prey.

Further insights into the lives and needs of these cats that live with humans will enable better management of leopard-man conflict in the future.