|Human-Leopard Conflict in the Pune District
The western Indian state of Maharashtra reported a population of 513 leopards (Panthera pardus fusca) in 2001 and in recent times has seen an escalation in man leopard conflicts in various parts of the state. The highest intensity of conflict (livestock and human depredations, leopard trappings) has been reported from the Junnar Forest Division (JFD), situated in the northwest corner of the Pune district. Fifty-one people were attacked between 2001 and 2003 in the JFD while the Maharashtra Forest Department trapped 103 leopards in the same period.
JFD also reported high levels of conflict around 1996 and 1997 but this was localized in the southern regions. On the other hand the sharp peak in conflict seen in 2001 where a person was attacked every two weeks at the height of conflict was localized mainly in the northern regions of the JFD. After 2002 the conflict declined to pre-existing levels mainly because of the large-scale trapping and an almost complete removal (long distance translocation, captivity or death) of the leopards from the JFD. Sixty-five adult leopards were completely removed from an area of about 4360 km2 of which 1590 km2 contained all the reported conflict incidents.
Sugarcane was thought to be the single most important factor for the increase in conflict over the years. The basis for this statement was the localization of the conflict 2001 in the northern, sugarcane dominated areas. The increase in area of this lush water-dependant crop in a region that historically supported dry deciduous forests is clearly evident in the analyses of the 1972 and 1992 satellite imageries of the northern regions. However, further analyses of the land cover between the years 1992 and 2000 indicates that there has been no difference in the extent of tall crops in the northern regions in this period. In fact, literature indicates that sugarcane was at its maximum extent in the late 1980’s following the commencement of operations of the Yedgaon dam in 1986. Therefore, if sugarcane was the main cause then we should have seen the conflict in the northern regions much earlier. However, least cost surface of movement of leopards in the JFD based on the vegetation density from satellite imagery shows that in 1973, it did not extend eastwards into the valleys and was mainly restricted close to the Western Ghats. On the other hand, in 1992, the surface extends to the regions where the conflict was seen to range in 2001 indicating that the expanse of tall crops did help the leopard to inhabit areas in numbers that would not have been possible earlier.
Habitat loss and the lack of wild prey are the other most commonly cited reasons for the increase in conflict. The Junnar Forest Division has been dominated by humans for atleast three decades and the Agricultural Department records show the extent of forest, and cropped area remaining at similar levels from 1960 1994. Our analysis of the satellite imagery also shows that that the landcover composition remained similar between 1992 and 2000. Furthermore, an independent study of leopard diet from scats carried out in the only protected area of JFD the Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary which lies in the south-west corner has found dogs to be a common prey item. Therefore it is unlikely that the JFD which contains only plantations of exotic tree species in land classified as forest supports any level of wild prey base. However, it is likely that domestic livestock and dogs, which were also most commonly encountered in the rapid prey assessment carried out in this study, are likely to be important food items for the leopards living in a human dominated area like the JFD.
Twenty-two leopards trapped in the JFD following 2002 were released in faroff protected areas in the state and these were marked with microchips. Three of these were recaptured at their new sites of release after casualties on humans in areas with no prior instances of human-leopard conflict in the memory of the people. Translocation of leopards is the most common way of dealing with animals caught in problem situations and is recommended by the Wildlife Protection Act (Amendment 2002) and carried out routinely all over India. However, this management strategy is likely to be detrimental to the conservation of the leopard species when the newly released animals come into conflict at the fringes of protected areas making the species infamous as man-eaters rather than a beautiful endangered carnivore that needs to be conserved. Also, the constant influx of these carnivores who require large areas of land per individual into certain protected areas could effectively be regarded as “re-stocking” and could result in leopard population increases close to the sites of release. The leopard is increasingly being persecuted for the trade compared to even tigers and it is necessary that changes in management strategies now target the species instead of individuals who have come into conflict with humans.
Vidya Athreya, Sanjay Thakur, Sujoy Choudhary and Dr. Anirudh carried out the project.