The leopard-eaters of the Himalayas

If big cats are to survive in this country, a credible alternative has to be found to the colonial-era hunter in dealing with 'man-eaters'

August 16, 2013 01:16 am | Updated 01:16 am IST

A wild leopard that strayed into a factory complex in Mysore trapped in a squeeze cage. Photo: M.A. Sriram

A wild leopard that strayed into a factory complex in Mysore trapped in a squeeze cage. Photo: M.A. Sriram

A hunter posing proudly near the carcass of a leopard he killed is still, in the 21st century, India’s answer to attacks on humans by leopards. No doubt a human being killed by a leopard is a very serious issue. It affects the lives of people, often those who have always lived in close proximity with these animals, and it needs to be addressed in the best possible way so that human welfare is not compromised, either in the short term or the long term.

But is killing a leopard the solution? In fact, how do you prove the leopard that was killed was the one that was attacking people? Leopards are social. It is not uncommon for many animals to interact and move together. Many individuals can use the same path on the same night, a few minutes apart. Therefore how do we know which animal was the man-eater? Furthermore, pugmarks are impossible as a tool to distinguish between different leopards. How then could pugmarks have been used to identify “the” man-eater?

Calling in hunters to kill “man-eaters” is simply an easy way to assuage local panic. When a human death occurs and, as in the Himachal case, when three people are killed in a span of a couple of weeks, fear grips the local populace. The politicians want action and the only visible and immediate action is to kill any leopard and show it as a “man-eater”. The Himachal leopard whose carcass the hunter — summoned to kill it all the way from Hyderabad — is proudly posing with (“ >Man-eater hunted down, Himachal villagers breathe easy ”, Aug. 12) appears to be a large male, at least two to three years old. Was he the real culprit?

That question is important because another attack occurred in the same region in the night after he was killed. Now there will be pressure to kill yet one more leopard because we do not know what else can be done. But why do large cats like leopards attack humans? There are no ready answers.

Many opinions, no knowledge

Like all wild animals, leopards, too, are extremely scared of humans and their first reaction is to run away from humans. Why then, should such a scared animal surmount a deep fear and kill humans? To explain this in India we have only numerous opinions and no knowledge that can help us better understand the reasons. The two most common opinions are: habitat destruction and lack of food.

Neither is an adequate explanation. With regard to habitat, leopards have always lived close to settlements and preyed on dogs and goats and still do. Yet human attacks occur only in some places or only in some periods, as for instance in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai where between 2002 and 2004, as many as 84 people were attacked. Between 2006 and 2012 no confirmed human deaths occurred due to leopards.

As for food, a leopard has a home range of about 20 and all it needs is about a goat-sized animal per week. That means 52 dogs/goats in 20 in a year. Average livestock density in our country is much higher and the leopard really does not need to kill humans for food.

Inappropriate intervention

In Maharashtra we found that biologically inappropriate interventions — such as capture from human-use areas and release in far away forests — increased attacks on people near the release sites. Once these interventions were stopped, so did the conflict, even though leopards are still present in the human-use areas today. The area I work in the Ahmednagar district and for most parts of Maharashtra, leopard attacks on humans are much rarer even though leopards are present.

Leopards are territorial with strong social bonds between related females and mother and cubs. Suddenly moving a stressed-out cat from its familiar environs to a new one would only make for a desperate animal that has no idea where it can get food and water in the new site. And India has so many people worsening the effect of such interventions for humans itself.

A study on tiger attacks in the Russian Far East has found that most of the attacks were provoked either intentionally (e.g. because people were hunting the tigers) or unintentionally (as when a vehicle hit a cub and the mother responded by attacking people on the road).

New research on mountain lions in the U.S. finds that areas where large animals are killed by trophy hunters has a similar density of mountain lions compared to areas where there is no trophy hunting. This is because younger animals colonise the vacant areas. The researchers propose that since the younger animals are new to the area, it increases the possibility of conflict with humans in areas where such hunting goes on. This is particularly important in a high-population country like India.

In India, Uttarakhand, where humans have been attacked by leopards for decades, and Himachal also have severe hunting pressures where leopards are killed in large numbers for the illegal wildlife trade. A question is whether this killing is actually increasing the conflict and leading to loss of human lives. But until targeted research is carried out, people will continue to die, as will leopards.

Unfortunately, the knowledge deficit on the issue has led to a proliferation of opinions that are blocking a resolution. On the one hand, India is a land that values knowledge and we have sent satellites into space, have high-class research institutions that train scientists and students, and export our “brains” abroad. On the other, we still are at a complete loss to explain why a species behaves aggressively in some places whereas it is peaceful in others. We take the recourse of getting a hunter to kill the animal as we did in British times.

(The writer is a wildlife biologist with Wildlife Conservation Society-India.)

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