The leopard in India, unlike other big cats, has been very adaptive of landscape changes. While this bodes well for their persistence, it comes with a price. Leopards are often seen close to human-settlements which leads to encounters with people. This study attempts to understand leopard ecology in a fragmented as well as protected landscape in the southern Western Ghats with a key focus to understand relations and frictions between humans and leopards in this region.
Predation plays an important role in maintaining biodiversity and structural integrity of tropical forest ecosystems which are threatened worldwide. Such forest fragmentation often brings wide-ranging large carnivores into contact with human-habitations, sometimes leading to conflicts. Leopards, the most widely distributed among large cats, persist in human-modified landscapes due to their ability to coexist with other carnivores, use modified habitats, and consume diverse prey. This study is being carried out in the Valparai plateau, a landscape mosaic of commercial plantations and rainforest fragments, and surrounding protected area of the Anamalai Tiger Reserve. This region has witnessed human-leopard conflict in the recent past which led to much antagonism in public and translocation of leopards. Scientific studies have shown human-leopard conflict to often increase with translocations. This study, therefore, is designed to explore leopard biology in a modern landscape so that suitable conservation measures can be devised. The study had following aims:
• Understanding leopard diet and habitat-use in a fragmented landscape of plantations and
surrounding protected area.
• Examining patterns of human-leopard conflict to develop science-based strategies for conflict mitigation.
We studied the diet of large carnivores (particularly leopards) using scat analysis with DNA-based identification of predator species, and the relative abundance of prey species in different land-uses using transect surveys. Patterns in conflict and attitudes of local people were analysed from conflict records with the Forest Department and questionnaire surveys in 28 plantation colonies and eight tribal settlements.
Our study showed that large carnivores predominantly (98.1%) consumed wild prey species and
domestic prey species contributed <2% to overall prey biomass. Similarly, for leopards four wild prey species (Indian muntjac, Indian spotted chevrotain, sambar, and Indian porcupine) contributed 95.1% of prey biomass, with the rest being minor wild prey species (no livestock in identified scats). In the landscape, wild prey species persisted but varied in relative abundance by land-use type, with forest fragments supporting higher abundances of most species.
Employment in plantations was the major source of income for people and only 4.8% of 3213 households in surveyed colonies kept livestock, and reported losing in a 3-year period (2008 – 2010), 32 head of livestock (cow, buffalo, and goat) to carnivore depredation. Over the same period, there were eight attacks on people, resulting in three fatalities (all children). Attitudes towards leopards were not affected by incidence of livestock depredation, but related instead to occurrence of attacks on people in the colony. Analysis of conflict incidents showed that livestock depredation at a colony was significantly and positively related to livestock numbers, and interactively with distance from protected area (positive) and number of people (negative).
Overall, to minimise conflicts, we suggest adoption of a combination of measures including better herding, improved livestock corrals, safety precautions for adults and children at night in estates, and proper waste management, besides protection of habitat remnants that sustain wild prey populations. These will help safeguard human life and reduce economic losses, thereby mitigating conflict and promoting human – leopard coexistence in such landscapes.