How much do we really know about wild animals? Like the leopard that was brutally killed in Gurgaon recently? The dominant imagery that we have of leopards are that they are bloodthirsty predators. The very word ‘predator’ does not allow us to see the animal as anything else. Sadly, animals like leopards are not very visible, are extremely shy, and their first reaction when they see a human is to run away. This makes it very hard to study them, and, therefore, to understand them, leaving with us only what the media feeds us — images of either people killing leopards or leopards killing people, both of which are very rare events in the entire gamut of human-leopard interactions.
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It’s only recently that there have been many more attempts to study leopards when they live among humans. There have been studies that have been both ecological and related to human dimensions, as both humans and wildlife need to be studied when they coexist together.
It is often said that leopards prey on children but the truth is that humans are not their prey. In fact, they go out of their way to avoid humans. On the other hand, humans are predators of leopards. People kill leopards in large numbers. A recent report by Rashid Raza in Traffic India, a wildlife trade monitoring network, found that about four leopards were killed every week in the decade before 2012. Humans hunt leopards for their bones, skin, teeth and claws. Furthermore, unlike leopards, which only hunt when hungry, people kill animals for fun or for trade, or no reason at all, and that makes us very unpredictable as predators.
Terming these animals predators blinkers our view of them in more ways than one. For instance, it does not allow us to look at them as the kind and caring parents that they are. A mother leopard spends a very large portion of her life with her cubs, almost the same proportion that we humans do. She teaches the young everything they need to learn, including avoiding humans. We learnt this from a mother leopard we had radio-collared in the cropland of Ahmednagar in Maharashtra. She taught her little cub to not enter the trap cage we had set to capture them. Leopard societies are based around female members. In Yala National Park in Sri Lanka, six leopards were seen walking together. Two of them were sisters and they had two cubs each. In Bera, Rajasthan, where they are not as shy as in other places, it is not uncommon to see many leopards together and the cubs with them could well be from different litters. In Africa, for instance, an older cub was seen with his mother and her younger cub as well as the father. In all of these cases, we could get to know more about them because we could see them but usually they rarely show themselves.
Like cats, leopards, too, are very territorial and have phenomenal homing instincts. For instance, a leopard in Nairobi, which was collared back in the ’60s, homed back more than 100 km. And, of course, wild animals do not understand man-made boundaries of national parks, and go where they want. Our studies on collared leopards in Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh showed some important aspects of how these species use human-use landscapes. They were entirely nocturnal, sitting in a small area the entire day, despite humans being all around them. At night, when the countryside sleeps, the entire landscape opens up for wild animals like leopards, hyenas and wolves to use. Our collared leopards walked close to houses, went to the cattle sheds and chicken coops to try and get something to eat. Most of all, they went to the nearby garbage dump where the pigs and dogs would congregate.
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Our research also showed that leopards do not use the landscape like we humans expect them to. One of our collared leopards, who was caught from a human-use area and released in a forest, walked 125 km in 25 days and travelled from Pune district to Mumbai, where after two years, he was killed in a road accident. Studies of many wild animals shows that they rarely stay at the site of release.
Knowing what we know about leopards brings us to the question: why do we carry such a frightening image of leopards in our minds? I would say it is largely a media construct since people in rural India, where the conflict is minimal, are remarkably accepting of these animals. It’s only severe conflict that erodes any form of acceptance, and, therefore, it is really important to ensure we do not create conflict with our actions. Usually, when leopards are spotted in areas where we do not expect them to be, like in the Delhi Ridge, the common practice is to remove them and leave them in some forested area. But, in India, no area, even if it is forested, is devoid of people, and our study found that such translocations lead to attacks on people near the release sites.
Stories about leopards abound in India, many of which revolve around the animal carrying away sleeping dogs from under cots. Stories by British hunters are replete with mentions of leopards coming to the verandah of houses and picking up dogs. The reason leopards go for dogs is that they are abundant, a perfect size for a leopard to prey on, and, lastly, they are not as protected as other livestock such as cows, sheep and goats, and therefore easier to prey on.
While we regularly see images of people reacting violently to leopards, there are many who are fine with the presence of leopards and believe he, too, has a right to live and only kills their livestock to satiate his hunger. In India, there are even people who revere and worship the leopard. Communities like Warlis, Gonds, Mahadeo Kolis and Velips who live in Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat, firmly believe that the large cats are their protectors. It is not only about reverence and worship; the inclusion into their culture also gives them a greater understanding about the animal. It results in acceptance because it implies that their fear has been overcome. In Mumbai, we have effectively used this knowledge to make awareness campaigns for city dwellers, which shows how useful traditional knowledge can be in helping people overcome their fear of these animals.
Sadly, these myriad diverse narratives are getting lost in the unpleasant visuals that are fed to us through the media, leaving us only with extremely violent notions about wild animals, who, in reality, just want to be left alone.
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