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Thursday, April 15, 2021

‘Focus of leopard conservation should be to reduce negative interaction with humans’

Vidya Athreya, a wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society with nearly two decades of experience, in an interview with Sanjana Bhalerao shares details of her new radio-collaring project in Sanjay Gandhi National Park, and the challenges in leopard conservation.

Written by Sanjana Bhalerao | Mumbai |
Updated: February 28, 2021 10:32:29 pm
Vidya Athreya (Express Photo)

When did your work with leopard conservation begin?

My first work was in Junnar. In 2001, in response to leopard attacks on people in sugarcane-rich areas in western Maharashtra, we began working with the forest department to reduce conflict. All the leopard sightings were in rural landscapes and they were living in croplands. We thought they were straying. Wildlife biologists largely study animals in protected areas and forests. We never look outside. So when we see leopards outside protected areas, we feel they are not supposed to be there. Everyone thought they were aberrant, so they would pick them up and release them in the forest. We realised that this particular act is creating the problem. Attacks on people increased after such releases. A similar thing happened in SGNP in 2004-05, there were on average 30 attacks on people every year.

What is the latest project of radio-collaring leopards in Sanjay Gandhi National Park?

It is basically a neckband or collar put around the animal. The collar uses different methods of communicating with us. Essentially, what we get are locations of that animal and the corresponding time.

Earlier, the traditional collars were VHF (Very High Frequency). They sent out a frequency and then the staff on the field triangulated it with the receiver. But the error margin was quite large. If it was a hilly terrain, there could be a 60-metre radius error.

Now we have satellite collars that use GPS. We don’t have to triangulate the location, instead the satellite triangulates the location. The error is very small, up to 10 metres. And it gives the time. It works like Google Maps.

How will the project work?

A total of five leopards will be radio-collared. We have completed phase 1 and collared two, the rest will be taken up post-monsoon. The collars will beam signals to the satellites at a pre-set frequency and the satellites, in turn, will relay the signals to a control room. We can log in and check the data.

Another method of communication is through GSM. The collar is fitted with the SIM. It works like messaging between two phones/SIM. The SIM fitted in the collar will send the location and the corresponding time to the SIM in our phone.

We have radio-collared two leopards – one with satellite and GSM collars to check which works better.

What is its importance?

The reason we need to use radio-collaring on these animals is that they are secretive. We cannot learn anything about them because the moment we look at them, they run away. We can put camera traps but that will give us only their density in the area, but not their movement. For example, we radio-collared one leopard, popularly known as Ajoba, which walked 125 km from Malshej in Pune to Mumbai. Without radio-collaring, we would have never known about its movement and route. We are hoping that these animals cross big roads, so it shows us how they are crossing. This information will be useful in planning future infrastructure projects.

How were the representative leopards identified/selected for the project?

The male leopard (Maharaja) was sighted in the northern part of the park and is surrounded by big roads. It was radio-collared to understand their dispersal from the park. The northern part of the park is the way out for these animals. The south of the park – Andheri – is an extremely built-up area, there is no scope for the leopard to disperse in the landscape. From the northern part of the SGNP, they can disperse all the way up to Dahanu, Gujarat. The second, a female leopard Savitri, is in the southern part, to understand how they live in human-used landscapes.

Why do leopards travel long distances?

Just like humans, our children can travel long distances and settle in a new country or area. But it is very unlikely for a senior person to do that. There are two kinds of movements in these animals — one is natural dispersal of younger animals, where they seek new territory for themselves. There will be inbreeding if they hang out in the same place. Second, if the animals are captured from a particular place and released into another, it is likely they will go back to their original place. Especially older animals.

‘Ajoba’ was an older animal. Do we know the reason behind his migration?

I have no proof, but my guess is he was coming back home. He knew where he was going. He took an arch straight to Mumbai and he lived here for two years until he died. There were a lot of capture and releases from this area, my guess is at some point he was picked up from here and he was trying to come back home.

WCS has done a similar project in Ahmednagar, why was SGNP selected?

Earlier, when we radio-collared leopards in Ahmednagar, we were only checking how they were using human used landscapes. The project was for a year, plotting their home range territory on the map and not tracking them actively on the ground. Also, the earlier project was in the rural landscape and this will be in a high-density urban landscape. This project is to study urban leopards. We collared 4 there (Jai Maharashtra, Lakshya, Chaitayna Ajooba), Sita in Nashik, Chalotte in Himachal and a spare collar was used for a tigress in Umred (Nagpur District).

Why is there no leopard census in the country? Is an increase in their population a reason to celebrate?

The reason why the rise in population is considered celebratory is because usually, we are talking about the rise in population of animals which are very few, like tigers. But the issues with leopards and tigers are very different. People often push for a leopard census similar to a tiger census. But what is the point? Tigers were really few, and we needed data about their population. Population rise/decrease is not an issue in leopard conservation. Their issues are different – it is about co-existence, conflict with humans. The focus should be to reduce negative interaction with humans.

Increase in leopard population or density in an area doesn’t mean there will be more attacks. It is like saying that an increase in human population density will mean more wars in that area. Our research showed that increase in conflict was due to unscientific practices such as large-scale capture and release. Wild animals will stay away from humans at whatever cost. At the end of the day, we are their predators.

Is there any difference in behaviour between female and male leopards?

Not through my study. But generally, the difference is that leopards are a society built around females. The female, her sisters and their female offspring live nearby. For instance, in Sri Lanka we saw six leopards walking on the road – two mothers who were sisters and two cubs each.

Are leopards solitary animals?

They are secretive but not solitary. In places where they show themselves, like one in Sri Lanka (Yala) and Bera in Rajasthan, one will see a family of seven sitting on rocks.


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