Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The leopards of Akole - Part 2

This is the 2nd part of the five part series on the Leopards of Akole

THE Beasts walk past their homes to kill goats and bring up cubs in the fields, but have not attacked villagers

(The leopards of Akole - 2)
epaper.dna.com (Pune Edition), February 17, 2009

Pankaj Sekhsaria

Leopards are present in several parts of Akole taluka. There are regular, though fleeting sightings of the cats. Goats and dogs are regularly picked up and pugmarks are easy to spot.
But beyond the obvious, there is a complete lack of knowledge, information and understanding. Nobody really knows how many leopards are actually present, their behaviour pattern, their territory and their movements.

These questions were part of an innovative field biology project to study the leopard in Akole. Supported by Kaati Trust, Pune, the Centre for Wildlife Studies and Centre for Ecological Sciences from Bangalore and the state forest department, the study has been going on for over two years. The first key results are beginning to emerge. "The initial challenge, has been to get a definite knowhow on leopard numbers in the 300 sq km of research area," says team member Athreya. It began with rigorous surveys of the region on foot and by road to get a basic assessment of the landscape and an idea of the areas and pathways most likely to be used by the animals. Satellite imageries and Google maps were also used to fine-tune the exercise.
This was then followed by extensive collection of scats for DNA studies. The analysis at a laboratory in Bangalore will give an idea of the numbers of leopards and importantly of the composition of its prey base.
Another important part of the study has been an intensive camera trapping exercise where self-triggered cameras were deployed to get the pictures of the desired animals. Twenty pairs of cameras were installed for a period of about 15 days in an area of about 70 sq km followed by their relocation to an adjoining block for another fortnight.
The cameras were installed in carefully identified spots just before Diwali and it was around Christmas that the exercise was finally completed. A lot depended on this exercise and the research team could not have asked for a better new year's gift.

Self triggered camera traps were set up across the landscape to get photographs of the leopards
(Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria)

The cameras had clicked pictures of 14 different leopards - five adult males, five adult females and four cubs. While a statistical analysis is now being undertaken to get a realistic estimate, it is clear from the sheer number of animals photographed that the leopard population here is indeed large.
Taken beyond the confines of the immediate context, the Akole scenario throws up critical challenges to our notion of large carnivore biology and behaviour and the very controversial and emotional subject of man-wildlife conflict.
The leopards of Akole have lived in close proximity to the humans for at least a decade. They regularly walk past their houses, pick up goats from sheds adjoining the homes and give birth and bring up their families in fields only a few meters away. Yet, there have been no attacks on humans and no strident calls for killing or removal of the big cats either.
The information and the insights being thrown up now, could not only force us to change our understanding of leopard behaviour. In understanding what is actually happening, it may equip us better to deal with problem situations that may arise in the future. A large part of what we believe is our understanding of the leopard, the causes of conflict or the solutions that we have tried to apply, have in fact been based on perceptions and opinions. Wrong decisions often therefore get taken for right reasons and the value of and need for good science becomes all the more relevant in such a context.

A typical cattle shed that can be seen in the villages of Akole Taluka. In the background are the sugarcane fields that are favoured by leopards (Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria)

A goatherd takes his goats along. Goats and dogs form an important part of the diet of the leopards of Akole
(Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria)

Tomorrow: How did the leopards get to Akole

Box 1
Locating Akole in a national context

While the Akole situation seems rather unprecedented and unbelievable, the reality across large parts of the Indian subcontinent actually confirms that Akole may not be an isolated case. For long we’ve believed in India that wildlife (even of the big and dangerous kind) lives only in forests and that is where they should be restricted. A whole range of wild animals like elephants, leopards, wolves, hyena not to speak of reptiles and avi-fauna are found outside areas designated as wildlife sanctuaries and national parks for their protection. Wildlife research, protection, conservation and management thinking in India, however, has continued to be limited to just these pockets. The reality clearly is far more graded and complex and this needs to be factored in.
Reports of human-leopard conflict, for instance, are regularly received from places as far apart as Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and West Bengal. A significant percentage of of India’s wild elephant population too exists outside the protected area network and the same would apply in large or small measure for a number of such threatened species of flora and fauna.
There is clearly a need for a more comprehensive and wholistic perspective if conservation is to succeed. What the Akole situation is asking us to do is to urgently look outside and look at a much larger landscape.

Box 2
In their backyards

The leopard (see pic) was a female who was photographed when she came to the area to feed on a cow that was thrown by a farmer after it had died due to electrocution. This female had come with two of her cubs and a short while later, another younger female (also with two cubs) was photographed at the same spot.
Pic: Vidya Athreya

Both these females were then photographed a few days later by cameras at completely different locations, roughly four kms in opposite directions.
In another case, half an hour after a female leopard had been photographed by a camera trap, another picture was taken - this time of a woman who was headed in the same direction.
It is an excellent example of the close proximity of the leopards and humans here.
The other stories that are part of the series can be seen at
1) Man-Animal Row: Study holds vital clues
2) Akole's leopards have hardly jumped humans
3) How did the leopards get to Akole?
4) Conflict in Junnar is due to relocation
5) Understanding Akole's unusual phenomenon

1 comment:

Akash said...

That's superb study about leopards in Akoke taluka
plz give more detail about wildlife in Akole Taluka