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India, where humans coexist with leopards

February 21, 2023
topic:Mass Extinction
tags:#India, #leopards, #indigenous people, #Human-wildlife conflict
by:Naila Khan
As humans encroach further into forested areas, friction with leopards (as well as other wild animals) increases. Some indigenous tribes, however, offer solutions.

On a quiet summer evening, Pramila Bhoir’s kids were watching TV as she was washing utensils in the front yard of her mud-brick house in the sprawling Aarey forest located inside the metropolitan city of Mumbai. All of a sudden, a stray cat leapt up a few yards away from her, which was quickly followed by a leopard that had jumped into sight and started chasing the cat.

"[The leopard] looked me in the eye before disappearing into the jungle," Bhoir, who is part of the Warli indigenous community, told FairPlanet.

In the Warli hamlet, such leopard sightings are not rare. But across the world, leopard numbers are rapidly declining, as their populations face numerous threats despite their ability to adapt to a wide range of habitats.

This decline led to a change in the categorising of leopards in 2016 from 'near threatened' to 'vulnerable' by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red Data List.

In India, as of December 2020, there were approximately 12,852 leopards, according to a report published by the Indian government. These figures mark a 60 percent increase in the leopard population from 2014. But large-scale, unplanned development projects accompanied with loss of forest cover has left leopards scrambling for space. 

The Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) near Mumbai maintains one of the highest documented leopard densities in the world, with roughly 26 leopards per 100 km2, according to a 2022 study. Preserving leopard populations by fostering a peaceful co-existence between them and humans has become a primary focus for stakeholders.

That study’s author, Nikit Surve, who is a wildlife biologist and researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society, India, said that "It is not rare for leopards to live alongside humans. Their adaptability enables them to live alongside humans with minimal conflict."

"The Warli community, primarily forest dwellers, have lived in harmony with nature for generations and therefore understand the forests and its denizens," Surve added.

Aarey, a buffer zone for the adjacent Sanjay Gandhi National Park, provides safe corridors for leopards to move through. According to certain estimates, over a million people are living around the borders of SGNP, and leopards occasionally stray into the surrounding residential areas as they roam through the wild. 

Can leopards and humans coexist peacefully?

The worshipping of leopards by Warlis provides the community with faith that its members can live alongside these big cats without fear.

"A [leopard] is a very shy animal, he never harms anyone," said Pramila Bhoir’s husband, Prakash. 

Every year on the day of Waghbaras, a local festival celebrating leopards, the Warlis organise a special prayer to appease the leopards at the Waghoba (animal deity) temple in Mumbai’s Aarey forest. The temple houses an idol of a leopard or a big cat.

According to the Warli creed, if people duly worship Waghoba and perform the necessary rites, the deity will defend them against the harmful effects of coexisting with big cats. If the leopard still turns to steal their animals or harm their children, they blame themselves for not fulfilling their end of the spiritual bargain. 

But while Warlis consider leopards as gods and tend to regard them with relative equanimity, other locals remain fearful of the prospect of running into one of these big cats.

In October of last year, for instance, a four-year-old boy was attacked in Aarey colony by a leopard while walking outside his house. 

For decades, leopards were viewed as extremely dangerous, and locals were alarmed when they spotted them outside the boundaries of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Leopards were trapped, removed or translocated from these areas and released in other protected areas. But research suggested that trapping and translocating leopards only increased the conflict rather than solved it.

Now, awareness-building programmes, such as Mumbaikars for SGNP and Living with Leopards, are helping preserve leopard habitats and mitigating conflict by educating communities that share space with the them.

The demands for trapping leopards in Mumbai started waning, after Surve and his team, along with the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) Forest Department, organised various awareness campaigns and workshops for communities living in the area.

Local residents who live in close proximity to leopard habitats continue to participate in these awareness efforts.

Setting an example

Around 1,700 kilometres from Mumbai is the picturesque town of Tehri, located in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.

In 2017, Titli Trust, a non-profit organisation based in Uttarakhand, decided to adopt Mumbai’s coexistence model for mitigating friction between humans and leopards. The Uttarakhand Forest Department, the Titli Trust and other community stakeholders all took a trip to Mumbai to expand their knowledge on the matter.

Once back, they rolled out a similar programme in 2017. Dubbed 'Living with Leopards,’ the programme aimed to inform local communities of the precautions they could take to reduce the likelihood of a leopard encounter or attack. Uttarakhand residents were instructed on how to behave around leopards, including how to give the animal space if encountered.

They were offered simple solutions, such as clearing bushes around homes that could serve as leopard hiding spots and keeping a light on at night to drive them away. Locals were also encouraged to not step out of their homes at night. 

Although leopards (Panthera pardus) are among the most adaptive carnivores, their frequent presence in human-dominated environments makes them extremely vulnerable to conflict with humans.

There were 45 reported incidents of human-leopard conflict in the Tehri area in the four years prior to the programme's launch in 2017, which resulted in 10 human fatalities. In the following four years, there were only 14 incidents, four of which involved human deaths. 

Sanjay Sondhi, co-founder of the Titli Trust, told FairPlanet that the ‘Living with Leopards’ programme is primarily aimed at changing human behavior and attitudes towards leopards.

"We cannot change the behaviour of the leopard," Sondhi said, "so we need to change human behaviour, to coexist."

"Like all behavioural change projects," he concluded, "change is a slow process."

Image by Lenstravelier.

Article written by:
Naila Khan
A leopard spotted around Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai, Maharashtra.
© Nikit Surve/SGNP
A leopard spotted around Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai, Maharashtra.
Embed from Getty Images
Across the world, leopard populations are rapidly declining.
Embed from Getty Images
As of December 2020, there were approximately 12,852 leopards in India, according to a report published by the Indian government. This marks a 60 percent increase in the leopard population from 2014.
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