In densely populated countries like India, people and wildlife often share the same space. Blackbucks and wolves roam the same grasslands as shepherds and their livestock. Snow leopards depend on the same pastures as the people of Ladakh and Spiti. Tigers descend from the forests of the Mishmi hills to the valleys where Mishmi villages are located in search of food.
Such proximity leads to a variety of interactions that help and sometimes hinder coexistence between human beings and wildlife. Studies looking at these human-wildlife interactions often focus on conflicts between the two and the economic cost for people living near wildlife. In such an approach the interactions studied are largely negative.
But when researcher Dhee arrived at a village in Hamirpur district in Himachal Pradesh, to understand how the residents viewed the leopard population in their midst, she realised that people don’t automatically view wildlife – even large carnivores like leopards – as the enemy. Instead, the researcher contends that the people of Hamirpur saw leopards as conscious thinking beings, who could be negotiated with in order to coexist.
In a study published in the journal People and Nature, researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society India, Centre for Wildlife Studies, Norwegian Institute of People and Nature, and the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department, explored how different factors affected the relationship between residents of the Hamirpur village and leopards.
“It is only recently that we are understanding the importance of culture in how people and large wildlife share spaces and India is perhaps the best place to understand these relationships,” said Vidya Athreya, a scientist with WCS India and a co-author of the study.
Located in the Siwalik range, Hamirpur is one of the smallest districts in Himachal Pradesh. The study village, whose name was not revealed, is a mix of pine forest and grasslands. Residents of the Hamirpur village are predominantly farmers, with women doing the bulk of the agricultural work. Migratory shepherds also move across the landscape in the summer with livestock.
Leopards, according to the study, have been a presence as far back as people can remember and take refuge in the mountain gorges that have dense vegetation. Their presence has not gone unnoticed. The Hamirpur district the study noted, had 74 cases of leopards attacking humans and many more attacks on livestock. But when Dhee, a psychology graduate interviewed farmers, shepherds and Forest Department staff in the village she realised that “non-aggressive interactions were the norm rather than a rarity.”
How do the people of Hamirpur accept and share space with a large carnivore?
Negotiating with leopards
Scientists, conservationists and government agencies largely rely on formal studies that use empirical data to understand wildlife. But in Hamirpur, the researchers observed that residents sharing space with leopards developed their own knowledge of the animal’s behaviour. For example, shepherds who frequently came across leopards in the region recounted detailed observations of how the animals capture prey, how they move through forests or their solitary nature.
When ecologists study animals, Dhee pointed out that the animals are viewed as passive beings that are purely instinctual behaving exactly as their biology dictates. “One of the main things that came through in the study for us is how people [Hamirpur’s residents] think of not just humans, but also other animals, as thinking beings, capable of reacting to specific situations rather than [being] instinct-driven,” she explained.
Viewing animals as conscious thinking beings much like humans, according to Dhee, allows the residents of Hamirpur to negotiate how to share space with the animals. For instance, shepherds the researcher interviewed observed that leopards were not merely predators but had their own views of human beings. One shepherd noted that leopards were afraid of human beings and would stay out of their way. But if human beings interrupted their hunt or interfered while they were eating their prey, they would become aggressive.
Such an understanding, according to Dhee, leaves more room for human beings in the landscape to modify their behaviour to coexist with the animals. “If you think that the person [or animal] in front of you can change, because of what do you say or do, then that creates space for some kind of dialogue,” she said.
Anthropologists have documented such knowledge systems, which attribute thought and reasoning behind the actions of wild animals, in several indigenous communities across the world including India. Dhee believes that even non-indigenous communities may view wildlife in such way. “Unless we actually look into it, we won’t know where it [such knowledge systems] is present, whether it is restricted to some communities...and where it’s coming from.”
In Hamirpur, the researchers noted that this understanding and acceptance of leopards is also aided by the local mythology and religious beliefs surrounding leopards. The researchers’ paper has an interesting title: The leopard that learnt from the cat and other narratives of carnivore–human coexistence in northern India. The title stems from a common phrase that Dhee and her interpreter encountered in the village: “The cat is the leopard’s aunt.”
One resident explained that according to local mythology it was the domestic cat that taught the leopard to hunt and subdue its prey by biting the neck. Other myths suggest that the Hindu god Shiva granted leopards a boon to be able to eat whatever they wished. A local priest believed that leopards could also protect humans walking in a forest. He believed that leopards would follow people, much like dogs, watching over them and escorting them safely to their village.
“He will stay with you all the way to your destination. Stay with you as in, no one can surround you or steal from you, dacoits can’t surround you, and if someone gets to you the leopard will face them,” he told the researcher. Links between religion and animals are seen in other communities, such as Western Maharashtra, where some groups worship a deity called Waghoba, which takes the form of a leopard or tiger. Such myths could be seen by people as divine sanction for accepting leopards as a natural part of the landscape and living with them without harming them.
Saloni Bhatia, a postdoctoral researcher with the Centre for Wildlife Studies, who is not associated with the Hamirpur study but works in the same organisation as one of the co-authors, praised the study for focussing on the mythology and folklore associated with leopards in the region. “These are important and unique aspects of human culture and they have the potential to shape people’s worldviews, beliefs and behaviour towards the natural world,” she said.
Drawing parallels between the Hamirpur study and her own doctoral work on the role of religion and folklore of Ladakhi communities in shaping their perspective on wildlife. She pointed out for example that several Ladakhi residents attributed predator attacks on livestock to bad karma or angry deities, and believed that wild animals were their ancestors reborn. “Perhaps, in indirect ways, such stories enhance empathy, help them cope with loss and in general, make them more tolerant of wild animals,” she said.
Such stories also had practical value according to Bhatia. “To a large extent, conservation involves gaining public trust and support. This means really understanding the culture that conservation is embedded in. Without such an understanding, there is a danger of imposing alien ideas and management styles that will not be readily absorbed by people and may result in serious friction between managers and local communities.”
Dhee, however, cautions that conservationists should not be too quick to promote these beliefs in the hope of aiding conservation. Religion, the researcher noted, can be a double-edged sword.
The leopard’s status as a protector also led some of Hamirpur’s residents to believe that wearing leopard claws and teeth would protect them from danger. Although the researchers found no evidence that leopards were being hunted by the Hamirpur residents, the local Forest Department staff revealed that they had often come across dead leopards with claws missing.
“Sometimes there are some animals that the religion in a landscape upholds as something sacred. But at the same time, that can also at some point turn into, well, this animal is sacred, so parts that they have, like their nails, or the whiskers or are also sacred,” she said.
Thus, religious beliefs could, on the one hand, help people accept and coexist with the animals. But on the flip side, they could be creating a demand for parts and giving people divine sanction to carry on with practices that could impact leopard populations, Dhee explained. The fact that these practices are technically illegal appear to matter little in this scenario.
The researchers of the study do agree with Bhatia in suggesting that in the presence of such beliefs and folklore, legislative technical solutions to conservation and human-wildlife conflict may not always work.
“Techno-management solutions...[include] trapping, building walls, using drones. These are usually directed at the wild animals while entirely forgetting that the main party to the human-wildlife conflict are the humans,” explained Athreya, co-author of the study. When the local community’s culture is ignored while implementing laws or conservation programmes it can create more problems she asserted.
An example of this is the Forest Department’s compensation schemes for people whose crops are damaged, or livestock is killed by wildlife. “It may on paper seem really nice,” said Athreya but pointed out that when leopards eat livestock, local communities typically would treat it as a normal occurrence or a natural disaster. When the Forest Department begins to compensate for this, it makes the administration responsible for wildlife.
“So people’s perception towards the animal can change from one that was part of the landscape to one that is the government’s problem and property,” she added.
This already seems to be the case in Hamirpur. The study notes that some residents in the village believed that there were two types of leopard populations in the landscape. The leopards that were always in the landscape and are considered divine and sacred, and a second population that was inclined to attack their livestock. The livestock-attacking leopards according to the residents were released in the area by the local Forest Department, an allegation that is denied by forest officials.
This belief also makes people abandon traditional methods of protecting crops or livestock from wildlife, according to Athreya. “This leads to the people putting the blame on the government rather than using traditional methods or local methods to prevent losses. Which leads to the third problem that instead of them protecting their livestock better they will wait for the compensation to arrive,” she said.
“For long term solutions we need community-led and community-run initiatives and the sad part is India’s traditions have those. They also have a lot of traditional knowledge to reduce losses which I don’t think any study till now has effectively documented,” Athreya concluded.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.