Junnar in Maharashtra was like any other prosperous agricultural taluk, where improved irrigation helped farmers switch to cash crops. Cattle, goats and fowl supplemented their income.

But in 2001, a deadly phenomenon struck the region almost overnight: leopards, known to prey often on cattle, dogs and pigs here, began attacking human beings also. Between 2001 and 2003, the big cats attacked no fewer than 44 people.

The attacks not only increased four-fold from the preceding decade (four a year) but also became more aggressive and lethal, targeting younger people.

A new research paper, published in the latest edition of Conservation Biology, links this exponential increase in attacks to a large-scale translocation project.

In 2001, 86 leopards were captured in the area and many relocated in a forest 39 km away.

While the eight years from 1993 to 2001 saw 33 leopard attacks on humans, 44 incidents occurred in the following three years of the translocation programme. The percentage of fatalities also doubled during this period.

The authors, who include Vidya Athreya and Ullas Karanth of the Kaati Trust, Pune, and the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bangalore, say translocation, the most widely accepted method of dealing deal with the human-animal conflict, could in fact be “inducing” a human-leopard conflict.

The increased aggression among leopards could be explained by the stress of translocation, says the paper.

“Translocation involves several interactive stressors: capture, close interaction with humans during days or weeks in captivity, transport, potential injury, and release of a carnivore into an unfamiliar area that already contains territorial conspecifics [animals of the same species].”