Gradual erosion of large wild prey outside protected areas (PAs) has forced leopards to switch to livestock adding to human-leopard conflict across the State as also the country.
The loss of prey base is due to poaching, habitat destruction (outside protected areas) and disturbance due to mining, quarrying, linear projects and so on.
A new study shows that natural habitats such as forests and rocky outcrops, and presence of large wild prey (ungulates >20 kg body weight) are extremely important for leopard presence though it is a common belief that they survive and do extremely well in human dominated landscape.
The study was conducted by conservation biologist Sanjay Gubbi and his team from Nature Conservation Foundation. They argued that protecting natural wild prey can be a key factor in reducing human-leopard conflict.
The study is significant as there are at least 2,500 leopards in Karnataka alone and a significant number of them thrive outside protected areas which do not receive conservation priority.
This is leading to depletion of wild prey base such as spotted deer, sambar and other wild animals and forcing leopards to target livestock, according to the authors of a paper titled “Every hill has its leopard: Patterns of space use by leopards (Panthera pardus) in a mixed-use landscape in India” published in the international journal PeerJ.
Mr. Gubbi said many leopard habitats outside the protected areas face severe threat from quarrying, mining, infrastructure development, and loss of wild prey to poaching. “If leopards are to survive outside protected areas, we need scientifically assessed zoning where some areas have to be prioritised for leopard conservation and designate some areas for natural resource extraction,” he added.
Despite leopards being widespread and their numbers being reasonably high in the country, there is severe lack of scientific data on their distribution and population especially outside protected areas.
The researchers carried out occupancy surveys — a scientific methodology to understand where a species occurs and what factors drive their presence — in nearly 24,000 sq. km area, walked 2,768 km and in terms of the geographical area, this is perhaps the largest field study on leopards in the country ever done, said Mr. Gubbi.
To understand where the probability of leopards presence was higher, the researchers compared occupancy of leopards in natural habitats (forests, rocky outcrops), human-dominated areas (agricultural fields such as sugarcane plantations, maize fields and other areas with little or no natural habitats), and intermediate habitats (areas that had a mix of natural habitats and human-dominated areas).
The highest presence of leopards was found in grids that have natural habitats and consisted of large wild prey such as chital, sambar, four-horned antelope, barking deer, wild pig and others.
This is the first of its study that compared leopard presence in different habitats throwing new light about leopards’ habitat and food preferences. This baseline data can be used in the study area for understanding leopard distributional changes in the future. It can also be used to check if leopards have been colonising new areas or if they go locally extinct, Mr. Gubbi said.