Rocky outcrops in towns like Tumkur, Ramanagara, Kolar and Mandya in southern Karnataka are prime leopard habitat. Barring small patches of protected areas like the Chinkara wildlife sanctuary and the Jayamangali Blackbuck Conservation Reserve, this land is largely outside the purview of the forest department and ownership lies with the revenue department. In the last few decades, it has been heavily quarried for granite. There are also numerous stone-crushing units and farmlands comprising sugarcane, maize, areca nut and coconut.
This land supports – though to a lesser extent each day – leopards in Karnataka. This is where wildlife biologist and conservationist Sanjay Gubbi grew up and where most of his fieldwork was – and continues to be – undertaken. Glimpses from this fieldwork spanning over 10 years is comprises Leopard Diaries: The Rosette in India.
“Human beings are a storytelling species. Every practising naturalist has stories to tell. These are a few of mine…when studying leopards along the way, I encountered fascinating plants and animals as well as many people – from scientists and gardeners to merchants and chefs -–whose stories were equally remarkable,” Gubbi writes in the preface.
The book brings the spotted cat to the general public, the simple language making it easily understandable even though some of the chapters provide the nitty-gritty of scientific detail through themes of leopard biology, predator-assisted seed dispersal, co-existence with other carnivores, and so on – although there are statements like “leopards are territorial and so are those studying them”, which only insiders might understand and smile at.
By elaborating on the habitat of leopards, the book also provides glimpses into some under-explored landscapes in Karnataka. (I have spent all my life in this state, but these details are all new to me.)
Unscientific management of leopard habitats
In 1994, a group of wildlife enthusiasts, including Gubbi, rode to Maidenahalli on mopeds in hopes of spotting wildlife. Maidenahalli is a dry grassland which is currently known as the Jayamangali Blackbuck Conservation Reserve.
To the surprise of the group, they spotted a group of six Indian grey wolves. What was more surprising – unhappily – was that a guard was aiming his gun at the wolves because “dirty wolves eat up all our deer.” And while the team managed to stop the guard from killing the wolves, the future of the species in this landscape clearly did not hold out hope.
In 2015, Gubbi returned to the landscape to find no wolves. Although, “to my utter shock, we got leopard images on our camera traps,” he writes.
What had happened was that the forest department had carried out afforestation drives and created forests in a landscape that had very little tree cover. And owing to its designation as a Conservation Reserve, there was a ban on grazing, which led to dense vegetation.
“The way this area has been handled is an excellent example of the unscientific management of wildlife habitats,” the book notes, pointing out the need to maintain an ecosystem as it existed naturally, rather than push it to become a forest.
Outsized impact of poaching and mining
Working continuously and extensively in a particular land area provides the kind of insights needed to build solid foundations, be it in terms of knowing the local landscape inch-by-inch, or its people and wildlife. It seems like such long-term work in one region has more advantages than disadvantages.
But such proximity also comes with challenges – people know you, which includes poachers and timber-smugglers. “Rumours would soon spread that we were installing closed-circuit cameras, CCTVs, to catch people who went to forests to hunt, bring timber illegally and to monitor other forest-related offences,” Gubbi writes in the chapter titled “Understanding the Spotted Cat”.
On threats like poaching, the book provides dire details: “Enforcement against poaching is so lax in these areas that poaching is seven times higher compared to protected areas…our research showed that as human population densities crossed over 275 people per sq km, the threat of snares to leopards also increased.”
These details though don’t seem to surprise Gubbi, who notes, perhaps drawing from years of eyes-on-the-ground work, that such data is “just a scientific way of objectively confirming what the eye cannot deny.”
Poaching – be it of apex predators like leopards or their prey – has far-reaching consequences. Elimination of apex predators means destabilising the ecosystem that they help maintain. And poaching of species like chital, langur, chinkara, civets, etc leads to both depletion of leopard food and an increase in human-wildlife conflict because leopards start hunting livestock.
As for mining-related threats to the leopard habitat, the book points to the gradual disappearance of rocky outcrops of the Deccan plateau. Hillocks here are bulldozed – legally and illegally – for granite and minerals like iron ore.
Gubbi notes how mining, stone-quarrying and poaching have “an outsized impact.” More importantly, he says “the future of leopard habitats outside protected areas has never been as uncertain as it is right now.” One needs to be both enthralled by a leopards’s rosettes and agitated by the threats it faces while being valuable to ecosystem protection.
Leopard Diaries: The Rosette in India, Sanjay Gubbi, Westland.