Leopard-human interaction in India is a fascinating subject to study, chiefly because there is little scientific data on it. There are no Western studies that we can rely upon. Our population and the extent of people’s proximity to wildlife (like leopards) are just too large.
I got interested in studying the leopard’s habitat and its interaction with humans many years ago. Then, all across Maharashtra, a large number of leopard attacks on humans were taking place. The reason being that people did not know how to deal with leopards. Whenever a leopard would be spotted, people and forest officials would trap it and release it in a jungle area. Leopards trapped in and around Mumbai would be released in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park due to public pressure and with the belief that any forest area would do. However, leopards are territorial beings. When they are removed from their habitat, they come under a lot of stress. Moreover, the experience of being trapped in cages and close contact with humans probably increases the conflict.
Very few in the scientific community, however, are interested in studying man-leopard interactions. Most research is conducted in national parks, because that’s more glamourous and comfortable. Wildlife researchers do not want to live in villages to study large cats. The novelty of the findings has also led to scepticism. For instance, when we learnt that a large part of a leopard’s diet in SGNP was stray dogs, some researchers were not convinced. According to them, leopards could eat only cheetals or other wild prey. We were taking away the romance and ‘wildness’ of leopards.
Studying such animals is expensive. There are very few grants available in India. As a result, we have to depend on foreign grants. And over the years, these have also reduced.
(This Pune-based researcher has been studying leopard-human conflicts and the animal’s habitat for the past eight years)
As told to Lhendup G Bhutia