Unpacking patterns of leopard attacks on livestock and landscape features in the Indian Himalayas offers clues to potential human-leopard conflict hotspots, a study has said amid increasing encounters of wildlife with humans.
Rapid deforestation and human-impacts on their habitats force these large carnivores to venture into unlikely landscapes outside protected areas for prey and cover, said scientists at Wildlife Institute of India.
Research by the team is unraveling how landscape features such as abandoned farmlands, tea gardens, and distance from protected areas, increase the probability of leopards attacking livestock in North Bengal in the Eastern Himalayas and Pauri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand in the Western Himalayas.
The team has studied patterns of leopard predation and analysed landscape features to map conflict hotspots in the study sites where wildlife managers, conservationists, and communities can work together to devise and reframe strategies to reduce livestock depredation by leopards within the Indian Himalayan region. Such measures will help reduce retaliation by local communities and ensure the survival of leopards outside protected reserves, the study claims.
“We investigated 857 attacks on livestock in Eastern Himalayas and 375 attacks in the Western Himalayas by leopards, between 2015 and 2018. We realised that leopards behave and adapt differently compared to other large carnivores. What we know of other large carnivores doesn’t really apply to leopards,” said Dipanjan Naha of Wildlife Institute of India’s Department of Endangered Species Management.
Leopards are stalk-and-ambush predators frequenting the fringes of protected areas. Diverse landscapes, like settlements, grazing lands, interspersed with moderate forests, might offer them better chances of catching prey compared to dense closed habitats, the authors said.
Whether it is the sugarcane fields of Maharashtra, the tea gardens in North Bengal, an abandoned rubber factory at Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh – leopards can survive in small, splintered vegetation patches as long as they have enough cover to hide. Livestock and free-ranging domestic dogs comprise the primary prey for leopards in these modified realms outside of protected areas.
The study finds the risk of a leopard killing livestock increased within a heterogeneous landscape matrix consisting of both closed and open habitats – very dense forests, moderate dense forests, open forests, scrubland and non-forests. Most of the attacks occurred when livestock was grazing freely within multi-use areas without supervision of a herder.
Study co-author S Sathyakumar elaborated that leopards have adapted well to landscapes modified by humans. For example, in Terai, most of the wild grasslands have been replaced by sugarcane fields. To animals this is cover, he pointed out.
“To mitigate conflicts and conserve the species, we need to focus on habitats outside forest lands, modified landscapes such as tea gardens in North Bengal, farmland areas abandoned by people due to outmigration in Pauri; structurally they are the same to a leopard,” said Sathyakumar, adding that the matrix of these multi-use areas has increased and animals are now being seen in the most unusual places.
“And leopards are very versatile species; they can kill a deer like a sambar or be happy with a rodent or chicken. They survive,” Sathyakumar emphasised.
A 2015 census estimated India’s leopard population to be between 12,000 and 14,000 individuals. They are listed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List.
Naha added that the result of the current study is similar to a study conducted in the Himalayan region of Bhutan which documented that livestock predation by leopards was higher within a matrix of forest and agriculture. “In contrast, large carnivore species such as hyenas, brown bears, lions and tigers use protective vegetation cover to hunt both wild and domestic prey,” he explained.
Distance from protected areas
North Bengal, with its famous tea gardens that connect small forest fragments provides ample cover to the leopards, the apex predator and only large carnivore present there, while Pauri has two protected areas in the foothill region – Rajaji National Park and Corbett National Park – with a sizeable population of the Bengal tiger that prefers undisturbed habitats.
North Bengal is densely populated compared to Pauri Garhwal, one of the two districts worst hit by out-migration in Uttarakhand that has more than 700 “ghost villages”.
The modeling revealed that encounters were more likely near protected areas in North Bengal – 46% forest cover – whereas the probability of conflicts was lower near PAs in Pauri Garhwal – 64% forest cover – in Uttarakhand, where recently a leopard was declared a man-eater and shot dead by the forest department.
“In North Bengal, protected areas are very small in size and they are surrounded by human habitations, while Pauri has forest patches that are larger. In North Bengal, the conflicts are more at the edge of these PAs while in Pauri you see leopards as you go higher up in hills, and therefore, conflicts are more in the villages at higher elevations. This is because at Pauri foothills where the two PAs are present, there is a competition between tigers and leopards for prey and this forces the leopards to the higher elevations,” said Naha explaining the observation.
In Pauri, the risk was higher within a matrix of moderate and open habitats – moderate dense forests, open forests, scrub and non-forests – whereas in North Bengal, leopards were more likely to kill livestock within both closed – dense forests – and open habitats – non-forest, open forest, scrubland, tea gardens, the study reported.
The authors suggest that awareness about high-risk areas supervised grazing, and removing vegetation cover around human settlements should be initiated to reduce predation by leopards. “When communities are going out with their livestock for grazing they need to be aware and alert. They should have a properly trained livestock guardian dog. They already know the challenges but we must ensure they don’t bear the cost of this coexistence,” said Naha.
Speaking to Mongabay-India, Kuldeep Kumar Joshi, gram pradhan of Patal village in Pauri Garhwal’s Ekeshwar block said he advises the residents in the village to trim hedges around their homes to avoid any negative interactions with the leopards. “The guldaar [local word for leopards] are not afraid to be in the same landscape as us. Earlier they were scared. There aren’t many people around and farmlands remain deserted which provides leopards with ample refuge.”
“They also take refuge in bushes around our homes. The guldaar kills livestock and sometimes attacks humans,” 45-year-old Joshi said.
In another finding, the study shows that in Pauri Garhwal majority of the predation events – 48% –were recorded in the vicinity of villages, whereas tea gardens in North Bengal were the principal kill sites – 37% of livestock predation events.
In previous studies, a section of scientists suggested that alternative habitats such as agro-forestry mosaics in North Bengal offer opportunities in scaling up conservation efforts outside protected areas. They find that more than 65% of the diet of leopards in this landscape is livestock.
“The presence of forest has no bearing on leopard presence since leopards are found to be ubiquitous across the tea plantation landscape of Northern West Bengal,” conservation ecologist Aritra Kshettry, who was involved in the previous studies, told Mongabay-India.
Communities in hotspots
The researchers searched newspapers and compensation records of West Bengal and Uttarakhand state forest department for reports of incidents of leopard attacks on livestock in North Bengal and Pauri Garhwal between 2015 and 2018 for the risk mapping. They also conducted structured interviews across the regions and asked the owners and community members about age and species of livestock killed by leopards.
The predictive maps indicated that certain pockets within Eastern, Central, and Western parts of North Bengal were hotspots of livestock predation for leopards.
However, conservation ecologist Aritra Kshettry cautioned that risk maps are only useful if they are made using relevant predictors and the models should be carefully picked to increase predictive power. “Once the maps are prepared, hotspot areas may be identified where immediate conservation focus may be addressed. Given limited resources available for conservation, it is important to allocate them based on the intensity of the problem; this is where risk maps come in. The data that feeds into the model is also equally important,” Kshettry said.
Referring to the North Bengal landscape where he works, Kshettry said while the current paper used newspaper reports and compensation claims for livestock predation, people in that landscape rarely report livestock losses to authorities and hence the data itself becomes biased, said Kshettry, founder and team leader, The Co-Existence Project. “However, if risk maps are prudently prepared and used, affected communities may get faster benefits with schemes that offset losses such as quick and fair compensation and livestock insurance schemes,” he added.
On human-wildlife conflict mitigation, India’s National Wildlife Action Plan (2017-2031) outlines a range of actions required and priority areas, including “developing national and regional mitigation plans for prioritised species and areas and encouraging community participation by training them in mitigation methods and as well as educating them to avoid mob formation and harassment to animals” during operations by wildlife managers and experts.
Sathyakumar informed Mongabay-India that a national action plan on human-wildlife conflict mitigation, as envisaged in the national action plan, is in the works. Localised community-driven responses are also taking wing. While the forest department has rapid response teams to meet emergencies, village response teams in certain areas such as Pauri Garhwal and Tehri Garhwal are also assisting forest staff to reduce human-wildlife encounters.
But shoring up monitoring is crucial to have a better grasp of the situation and take collective ownership of a problem. “We need to do proactive monitoring; if there are problems in an area, set up camera traps, take photographs, and collect scats so at least we know the identity of the leopards. This also builds confidence among the communities. People will be happy that the forest department is coming and doing something. If we don’t do that and suddenly there is an incident of an injury or death of a community member from a leopard attack, and then the forest department lands up there, there will be a backlash against them. When you visit regularly, you have a relationship with the communities,” explained Sathyakumar.
Naha batted for a shift from PA-centric conservation and underscored the significance of embracing a One Health approach with Covid-19 and rising trend of zoonotic diseases bringing to the fore the concerns surrounding the shrinking of habitats that bring wildlife closer to humans. Nearly 31% of India’s PAs are less than 10 sq km in area and the average size of the PAs is 262 km, which is “extremely small” compared to PAs in Africa and North America.
“There has to be a shift from what we used to do 15 years ago, which was the PA centric approach to conservation and the thought that tigers and elephants have to survive within PAs, and you need to remove people from PAs; but now in the scenario of rapid development, we can’t exclude one from the other, especially given the sizes and extent of the PA network which is only 5% of the geographical extent of India,” he added.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.