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The leopard, my neighbour

A stunning female leopard relaxes before starting her evening hunt. Getty Images/ iStockphoto  

If leopards prowled through yards and gardens and leapt over fences and hedges, many people would go into hysterics. Even some wildlife biologists would say it was a serious cause for concern. The wild animal may injure or kill people, who would likely retaliate by slaughtering the beast. Trauma could lead to both sides losing their nerve and attacking the other. More people and leopards lose their lives in the Indian states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand than any other region. So Shweta Shivakumar of Centre for Wildlife Studies was astonished to learn the villagers of 11 Himachali districts didn’t see the wild cats as a threat. Growing up in a city, she loved the beautiful and graceful animals, but she was also scared of them.

Welcome home

When Shivakumar debated where to position camera traps for her study, a householder in a settlement near Shimla city pointed to his doorstep. The researcher was sceptical. Surely, no wild animal would walk within brushing distance of a house full of people. But the man insisted a leopard sauntered by every evening. With doubts clouding her mind, the researcher strapped the camera by the front door. Days later, the device proved the resident right. She showed him the photograph of a leopard striding by his front door. He didn’t say, “I told you so,” as he gazed at the image, holding his toddler grandson in his arms.

“Aren’t you scared?” Shivakumar asked.

“Leopards have been around since I was a child,” he replied. “My grandson and pet dog come indoors at dusk. So there’s no problem.”

What a relief!

Not only did the wild cats nonchalantly cross front yards, they also pooped on the way. One did its big business right outside another home’s entrance. Researchers use these droppings to learn about animals’ diets. While the leopard had made Shivakumar’s job of collecting these scats easy, this proximity between a predator and people made her uneasy. But she was also shocked by how casually the residents accepted a wild animal’s presence as normal. When they lost their livestock, they absolved the predator of culpability by blaming themselves.

“I must have switched off the light in the livestock shed at night,” said a farmer after he lost one of his animals. “I made a mistake.”

Sometimes, things go horribly wrong. Besides interviewing people who accepted the leopards in their midst, Shivakumar also spoke to the bereft who related the sequence of events that led to the tragic deaths of family members.

Immediately after such fatalities, often the community chased the offending leopard with the intention of killing it. When they succeeded, the news, and sometimes graphic video footage, became sensationalist fodder for the rest of the country. Despite these heartbreaking events, most villagers didn’t agitate to have their neighbourhood predators removed.

“I don’t blame the leopard,” a grandmother told the researcher. “But it caused us a lot of grief.”

Bearing the brunt

Instead, they described the animals as shy, secretive, and clever. How are they able to tolerate these predators in their midst?

“They see them crossing the road, prowling through their fields, or sleeping in gullies and nothing happens,” Shivakumar says. “They hear of one negative incident a year.”

Since leopards were harmless most of the time, the people also were relaxed.

Villagers, rightly or wrongly, distinguish between two kinds of leopards. The tendua, the ‘bad’ ones, were brought from elsewhere by the forest officials, they say. These are the dangerous animals, attacking and killing without provocation. But the other kind of leopard, called bagheera or mriga, are the ‘good’ ones, which don’t harm unless people bother them or interfere with their kills. According to local folklore, domestic cats taught leopards how to kill their prey by grabbing the neck. Residents refer to house cats as their larger cousin’s maasi [aunt].

Shivakumar came to realise these bagheera were a part of village life and lore for centuries.

The writer is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover.

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Printable version | Oct 29, 2021 12:28:19 AM |

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