Leopard-human conflicts cannot be effectively reduced without focus on conserving the animal's natural habitat
The biology of leopards is the reason behind the increase in their population. The carnivore’s small size (females weigh around 40 kg and males around 65 kg) means it does not demand much food, and hence it can survive on smaller-sized prey. This, in turn, makes it supremely adaptive to almost any kind of habitat. But having such a versatile and adaptive species near human-dominated areas makes conflict inevitable. Population increase only exacerbates this, as does the fact that leopards’ natural habitat is increasingly being taken by humans.
Across the world, such situations of conflict are mitigated through various methods, including lethal (culling) and non-lethal (deterrent) approaches. Most lethal methods are controversial and unacceptable in countries like India. Hence sterilisation is seen as one of the most humane and ethical methods of controlling populations. This is what Maharashtra is now mulling to adopt.
A fertility control drive depends on several factors, including duration of effect, ease of delivery, drugs, treatment protocol, social structure, reproductive endocrinology, ability to recognise previously treated individuals, cost, and absence of harmful effects on the target or non-target species. This would be a major challenge with a stealthy carnivore like the leopard. Calculating baseline population and dynamics of the species is important. According to the Status of Leopards, Co-predators and Megaherbivores in India-2018 report, Maharashtra has 1,690 adult leopards—this number will be higher if the areas outside tiger-bearing habitats are included.
It is estimated that a minimum of 70 per cent population has to be sterilised to achieve the desired results. Thus, the state must sterilise at least 1,200 leopards. Research also shows that contraception for males in a polygamous mating system, such as that in leopards, would not be effective unless more than 95 per cent of the fertile males are treated. This is perhaps an unrealistic goal in this scenario. But the only way to determine if this approach will work is through a trial.
Nonetheless, all solutions must include one key aspect—availability of leopards’ natural habitat. Research in Karnataka shows that natural habitats and prey are critical for survival of leopards and to reduce their conflict with humans. The rocky outcrops of the Deccan plateau have been gouged for granite; scrub forests have lost the race to agriculture; deciduous, evergreen forests have been submerged to meet electricity and water demands; and roads, railway lines, canals have severely fragmented wildlife habitats. All these have led to the leopard expanding its range into dynamic, low-quality habitats such as sugarcane and maize fields.
In the last two decades, narratives have been floated about coexistence of people and leopards. This narrative is not based on proof of reduction in conflict incidences or of fewer leopards being captured, taken captive or translocated. In 2022, Maharashtra perhaps had the highest number of fatalities, 17, due to leopards. In Junnar city, which is highly publicised as a model for human-leopard coexistence, there have been 27 leopard attacks on humans so far this year, three of which resulted in deaths. The Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai, too, regularly reports leopard attacks on young children.
Though coexistence is required, we need forthright quantitative evaluation, and the narrative must come from communities that suffer the impacts of leopard conflicts, not from academics. Leopards will not turn vegetarian if their prey continues to be poached, especially outside protected areas. Similarly, protection of natural habitat cannot be ignored.
Sanjay Gubbi is the author of Leopard Diaries: The Rosette in India
This was first published in the 1-15 September, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth
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