Living with Leopards – Vidya Athreya – BMICH – 6pm 17th May 2018
The take away from the lecture: “Live & Let Live” – love your leopards, do what you can to educate people to be wary, but think of leopards as good luck living in your neighborhood. Leopards keep away from human contact and do not kill humans
Vidya has been engaged in the study of leopards in various places in India. Interestingly, most leopards in India live WITHIN human habitation in India. She estimates that there are 14,000 leopards in India and we estimate about 1,000 who live in Sri Lanka. Both are educated guesses with a degree of error.
She showed examples, by catching and collaring, the ranges of leopards, which can be substantial, and if caught and relocated, they tend to return to their previous range, implying that relocation is NOT the answer to remove leopards. Further she showed that whenever a leopard is removed from a particular area, another takes its place due to the maximum that can be contained in an area.
So we come full circle, into a society that simply must and does learn to live with the leopards in their midst. If people revere the Leopard as they do in some communities, where the word Waghoba is used for a cat like deity and hence Vidya used that for her website that goes further in explaining this. See below:
She believed that the Indian experience of her study of the habits, and food of the urban leopard, Sri Lanka will be better able to understand this animal in the wild and be able to live with this species in harmony, especially as their habitat is being encroached by the humans, who are trying to chase away or somehow get rid of the leopard threat. We then come up with the who came first theory.
http://www.projectwaghoba.in/leopard_article.htm This link is worth reading as it is clear that leopards are part of the very fabric of Indian life and their place is recognized and there is no project to capture and send them to National Parks. She used the Giri Tiger story to say that though the National Park is only 2,000 sq km. the Tigers range is 10,000 sq km, well into the range of human existence.
With regard to what they eat, it was pointed out that more dogs are taken than farm animals, possibly because they are safeguarded against leopard attack, whereas dogs are leashed outside homes and easy prey for the big cat. Camera traps show the nighttime prowling of the leopard, due to the fact that it only even attempted wander into human settlements long after people had gone to sleep, around 9pm to 5am when essentially people are asleep.
Translating this experience into the Sri Lankan concept
She used the example that in years past, people did not go on safari, to see wild animals. It was therefore not a particular need to preserve species by creating Parks, for visitors to lose themselves in, and be guaranteed of seeing the big cats. She pointed to an example of an urban place in Mumbai, where people could go in the evening to see the lions, as they are used to humans and both keep their distance, and nothing happens, just a tourist destination, outside of a park.
In National Parks, leopard and lion and even tiger get used to the people, and so take a careless attitude to vehicles and people as they know they will not be harmed in anyway and so mingle amongst people, not hiding from them. It is sometimes easier to see them in this semi domesticated mode, which takes away from the excitement of seeing an animal in the wild.
In India where only 5% of the land is a protected area, it is impossible to have the very high percentage of wild animals they actually have, confined to protected areas as there is not enough space therefore them. So most of the big cats live with the people, both parties keeping their distance from each other. She said that even at Independence in 1947, the Indian Population was large, and despite it they have such a high concentration of animals is proof that people respect these animals and give them the space in their neighborhood. They then try to protect their livestock from attack and when they are attacked have a different attitude about them, than one would have expected.
SO with the prevalence of Leopard sightings in the up country Tea Growing areas it is time for us, first, NOT TO FEAR THE LEOPARD in our midst. Learn about its behavior and its relative shyness where it sits put in the forest during the day time and only comes out at night to forage for food. If they fear a leopard close by, then they should merely beat a drum, before going on tea plucking rounds and the leopard if it is there will retreat.
There are NO instances of dens being found in the property, so the litters are kept safely away from human settlements. It is only when there is a den inside a tea plantation that one should be a little more careful, as the mother would be more wary of humans getting close to their cubs.
Of course she made sure she said that the Media plays an important role in ensuring that the people are assured that leopards are harmful and not get into a leopard being a threat, as is being reported, putting the fear of the animal. IF the people in affected areas are calmed and explained in detail, then gradually the leopard future amongst humans can be assured leading to an increase in animals.
We saw film clips of cougars in North America through camera traps that showed they were sensitive to human sound. They just disappear at the sound of humans and re-appear when the coast is clear to hunt. So this issue is not just a threat in India it happens even in places like the USA where animals come into contact with Humans and ransack garbage cans emerging from wooded areas. Even there the people have learned to respect their space, and do not engage in massive get rid protests, but instead try to benefit financially from promoting tourism in these areas with the knowledge that one could encounter an animal.
There should be a cache of living with wild animals attached to you, which gains street cred. So in order for rural populations to have some status, using the fact that animals live in your presence should be an attraction and NOT a deterrent.
The most surprising point that was made at the lecture was that one of the highest densities of leopards are in the most dense of human habitation of suburbs of Mumbai where millions of people live.
Increasing human encroachment results in pressures by NIMBYS who want to rid the place of wild animals. We must first ask the question, who was there first? Why should we remove the original inhabitants and replace them with humans? For whose benefit? And What benefit? When one seriously considers the diminishing population of wild animals and endangered species, awareness of diversity must be inculcated in the community at large, and then steps can be taken to use scientific methods to protect and regenerate species.
We were told how the British looked at animals as hunting trophies and to be killed, while Indians throughout history looked at living in harmony with them and the spirituality of this life, meant that many animals were deified and so animal slaughter was rare. So even poaching for food, is a rare occurrence out of necessity rather than an occupation itself. This has led in India for action to preserve wild life that has shown a lot of success.
In fact that Asiatic Lion which now only resides in India is increasing in population as is the Indian Tiger, these are success stories for us in Sri Lanka to learn from and in order to prevent further destruction of the habitat, we must get the local communities involved in saving their animals, in particular the leopard and elephant and learn to manage this animal to minimize crop and livestock loss, using more sophisticated techniques of monitoring.
When an animal is trapped we try to save it, and release it back into the wild, so why don’t we use the same sense of respect to allow them to live in their space?