environment Reviews

‘Leopard Diaries – the Rosette in India’ review: The conservation of big cats

Leopard Diaries – the Rosette in India Sanjay Gubbi Westland Books ₹599  

Early on in his book, wildlife biologist Sanjay Gubbi says leopards evoke both terror and admiration, but ‘have not mesmerized people throughout history like lions, tigers and cheetahs.’ This is a good way to understand the premise of this book. Gubbi unpacks leopards like he is studying disparate pieces of grit on a seashore. He scrutinises issues of various shapes and sizes that affect or drive leopards — politics, feline movement, chance events. He comes away with his hands full and feet deeply planted in the mud — squarely addressing just how messy big cat conservation can be.

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Perfect case study

To understand how the human hand and ‘wild nature’ interact with each other, the leopard is an almost perfect case study. Leopards live both in recognisable areas like Mumbai’s Aarey and in inaccessible forests; and as livestock eaters, they become the centre of human-wildlife conflict. When people hate leopards, they often want revenge, not redressal; conserving a large obligate carnivore and its habitat can be much harder than say, conserving birds. As Gubbi points out, mosquitoes kill far more people than leopards, yet it is the leopards who become pin-ups for conflict.

Yet, India is the long-term home for leopards with over 20,000 big cats, as per the author’s guess. This is much more in comparison to other leopard sub-species: there are about 1,000 Persian leopards, and 100 Amur leopards left. Gubbi has studied Indian leopards for over a decade, mostly in Karnataka. But his interest is not just academic, and the book details his practical engagement as conflict-manager, adviser to the State government, and leopard PR person.

The meat of the book thus lies not in his research data but the insights he makes, a welcome addition to a new kind of natural history-conservation writing, such as the recent The Rise and Fall of the Emerald Tigers by Raghu Chundawat.

Neglected species

The most interesting premise in the book is that while leopards seem to be doing fine in more built-up spaces, they need natural habitats. The fact that they can survive well in sugarcane fields ‘is true but not universal.’ The book follows leopards with home ranges above 100 square kilometres, and suggests they need more natural areas to survive.

Also interesting is the connections Gubbi makes between political economy and a secretive, solitary leopard — in Karnataka, rocky outcrops used by leopards are being crushed to nothingness for laying roads, and in the Western Ghats, railway lines are proposed to cut through leopard habitats; these decisions are made far from the scent of the forest and the dust of the field. The leopard map can also be seen as a map of neglected people and species — you also come across wolves and honey badgers, dosa outlets flattened by highway expansion, and a leopard that enters a school in a rapidly expanding Bengaluru.

The book needed better editing though, shearing away repetitive portions and including maps and graphics. But it is the most valuable contribution to leopard conservation today. It takes a lot to know an elusive leopard, and the author freely admits he has just started: ‘the jungles are a world of sight, sound and smell... but we are largely audio-visual while a leopard is chemical.’ It will be interesting to read where the leopards are 10 years hence — I look forward to that book too.

Leopard Diaries – the Rosette in India; Sanjay Gubbi, Westland Books, ₹599.

The reviewer is a conservation biologist and author of Wild and Wilful.

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2021 8:32:00 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/leopard-diaries-the-rosette-in-india-review-the-conservation-of-big-cats/article35094849.ece

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