In the aftermath of a tragic incident in Maharashtra's Junnar, where 5 leopard cubs were burnt to death unknowingly by a farmer in whose field they were in, Down To Earth talks to leopard expert Vidya Athreya about how humans and leopards can share the same space
Q. Why do leopards take refuge in agricultural fields? Does this behaviour have any parallels with those of other big cats such as lions, tigers, jaguars and mountain lions?
Lions in Gujarat do occur outside Protected Areas and in croplands. This is shown the documentary ‘Wandering Lions of India’. It is also true of tigers in the croplands outside Katarniaghat. Protected areas are made by people for people’s administrative use. These animals have never been told they are supposed to live only inside. We have to realise that all animals have to adapt, otherwise they will go extinct. They will adapt to any habitat as long as they are not being killed in such landscapes to the extent they cannot persist there at all.
India has had a long history of such shared spaces. The Protected areas only came recently, whereas these shared animal and human spaces have been in India long before the passage of the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972.
Mountain lions occur in Los Angeles. So do coyotes and bears in the urban areas of the US. Even in Europe, you have wild carnivores living outside Protected Areas. They are large-bodied animals and therefore require large spaces. Small Protected Areas cannot contain their populations.
Q. Is there any way that leopards can be weaned away from such fields? Any technique that humans can use so that leopards do not take shelter there?
No. It is not just leopards. There are wolves, hyenas, elephants, foxes, jackals, lions, elephants, Great Indian Bustards, other birds and insects that live in human-use landscapes. You want to remove all of them? Even if you want, you cannot.
Q. What should humans do if they encounter an adult leopard in an agricultural field?
Our studies show that wildlife in rural areas are nocturnal. You have to realise that villages, unlike urban areas, go to sleep once it is dark. For wildlife, it becomes a truly 'wild' landscape as most people are asleep. This is what our radio-collaring studies on leopards in these landscapes showed — that they are active when humans are asleep and they are asleep when humans are active. They have adapted to minimse problems with people. It is important for humans when they are going into the fields in the night to make some noise. Today, they can play songs on their mobile phones. This can ensure that the leopards know that a human is coming and they will move away.
A simple rule: whenever you see any wild animal, do not go towards it. Walk away.
Q.What to do if there is a litter of cubs?
Leave them alone. In some cases, we have seen that if the farmer wants to harvest his crops and if the cubs are there, he will lift them and put them in the nearby field. At night, the mother comes and takes them away.
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