The sighting of a male leopard at the Yamuna Biodiversity Park in North Delhi on the night of November 21 has sent ripples across India. While managers there view this as a sign of the park’s health, some conservationists have expressed concern over the potential conflict with humans this may lead to, given that the park is spread across only around 500 acres. This concern is not unfounded. Even as people were rejoicing the leopard sighting in Delhi, another of the species was beaten to death by villagers just outside neighbouring Gurgaon on November 24.

The government has decided to combat the purported threat presented by the leopard in the Capital by capturing it and either releasing it in the Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand or condemning it to permanent incarceration at the Delhi zoo. This response, and the death of the leopard in Haryana’s Sohna town, close to Gurgaon, are both representative of the problems plaguing the animal’s conservation in India.

The leopard sighted at the biodiversity park is not the first of its kind to reside in Delhi, nor will it be the last. The city’s landscape has historically supported not only leopards but also gazelles, antelopes and wolves. Although much of the Aravalli hills has been invaded by construction and the wildlife here has substantially diminished, patches of the forest still provide refuge to many wild animals. The largest patch of the Aravalli forests in South Delhi is notified as the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary and extends into Gurgaon. These contiguous forests are home to an indeterminate number of leopards. Last year, there were sightings of the animal at the sanctuary.

Delhi and Gurgaon are not exceptional cases: leopards have a long history of co-existence with people here. The big cats have cohabited the forest fringes and rural-forest continuum for generations, living close to human settlements and preying on domestic animals, dogs and occasionally people. While most of these interactions have been largely peaceful, some have turned ugly under the glare of the media.

Knee-jerk response

Ecologist Vidya Athreya studies leopards, and her research shows that those living around human settlements can cohabit by adapting to human time schedules and becoming entirely nocturnal to decrease interactions. Leopards prowl villages and cities after the inhabitants are asleep and the streets devoid of people. They look for dogs and other domestic animals on the same roads treaded upon by thousands of people during the day. Mostly, they leave as silently as they entered. In the day time, they hide, sometimes only a few feet away from people, and patiently wait for night. Many villagers have reported seeing the cats often, and have learnt to ignore them as they go about their business.

Some leopard sightings, especially when the animals are trapped in wells or suburban homes, do lead to panic and mayhem. Large swells of people surround the cornered animal, often just to catch a glimpse of it or record a video. According to ecologist Ghazala Shahabuddin, most cases of conflict in urban areas are triggered by panic and the anticipation of damage rather than the animal having injured anyone. Cornered in volatile situations, leopards get agitated and injure bystanders while trying to escape. In some cases, mobs are angry because of the loss of a loved one or livestock to the animal. Since leopards mostly prey on stray dogs, it is speculated that the reactionary violence is mostly engendered by primal fear of carnivores. These problems get compounded with government apathy and delayed responses, leading some people to take matters in their own hands.

Villagers clubbed a leopard to death in Sohna, 26 km from Gurgaon, on November 24. Photo credit: PTI

To mitigate conflict, the government needs to be better prepared to manage such situations. “The effective training of forest staff in managing such difficult situations is of the utmost importance, as is the need for education and awareness among media persons and local communities,” said Shahabuddin. Often, the media comes out with wrong reports of leopards straying into human habitats and this polarises public opinion against the animals. According to Shahabuddin, this could be exacerbated by the growing disconnect of not only urban dwellers but also farming communities with wildlife, and lack of awareness among people that leopards have been roaming in their midst unobserved at night.

To assuage angry mobs, the forest department usually translocates some leopards and transfers the problem elsewhere – as is being proposed in Delhi. This knee-jerk reaction has proved to be counterproductive, leading to an increase in man-animal conflict at the release site.

According to Athreya’s studies, a translocation programme in Maharashtra’s Junnar city in the early 2000s resulted in a 325% jump in leopard attacks on humans. The reasons for such an increase in attacks could be stress caused by translocation, unfamiliarity in the new landscape or conflict with resident leopards at the release site. Leopards are a highly territorial species, and scientists have cautioned against relocation as it disrupts an existing social set-up. The translocations were halted after the Maharashtra government codified guidelines for such conflict situations. And in 2011, the Central government too issued extensive guidelines that directed the authorities to allow the animals to go back to their habitat.

Sensitising humans

The fragmented forests and fields where many leopards live can hardly be set aside for conservation. And since translocation is not an effective solution and killing the animals is not ethical, more innovative solutions must be devised to manage leopard-human interactions. Athreya believes leopards can continue to reside in urban areas if governments try to augment India’s “social carrying capacity”. She said the focus should be on informing people about leopard traits and encouraging behavioural changes to reduce conflicts (such as not leaving children unsupervised).

After Mumbai saw several leopard attacks in the early 2000s, organisations there began a sensitisation programme to educate both rural and urban residents on precautionary measures. The leopards continue to reside around Mumbai, but there have been no attacks on humans since October 2013. Athreya considers this strategy critical. “Most efforts to mitigate human-wildlife conflicts in India is directed towards the animals,” she said. “While such conflicts may never be eliminated completely, the Mumbai experience shows that solutions are more effective when we reach out to people, make them understand the issue, and help them lead safer lives.”

The truth is that India is urbanising rapidly. The population residing in urban areas has risen from 10.8% in 1901 to 31.2% in 2011. The trend is likely to continue. Noted environmental historian Mahesh Rangarajan succinctly summarised the quandary while leaving a lingering question. “Leopards near towns or villages are not strays: these are sometimes areas where they have a long history,” he said. “There are serious conflict situations where human lives are in danger, which does not bode well for the animals either. Can co-habitation work? This is the question of our times.”