HOW DID THE LEOPARDS GET TO AKOLE
Leopards were always here. The sugarcane crop is a good breeding and hiding ground for the big cats
epaper.dna.com (Pune Edition), February 18, 2009, Page 5
There is one big question that seems to lie at the very root of this entire issue. How did the leopard get into a primarily agricultural landscape with a big human population like Akole? The answer is as unexpected as the question is obvious. The leopards were always there, the only change being that their numbers may have increased over the years.
Several related factors can explain the rather sharp rise of leopard numbers in these parts of western Maharashtra and the many cases of conflict. The most important dimension, perhaps is the change in land use across this belt. Leopards were always found here, though records indicate that the dominant predator here was the wolf, an animal that essentially dominates scrub forest and open grassland regions.
Increase in area under agriculture has pushed the wolf to the margins and the spread of sugarcane created an ideal situation for the leopard to establish itself and spread its presence. The height of the sugarcane and the fact that it is a long duration crop (11 months) allows these fields to become good breeding and hiding grounds for big cats like the leopard and even the tiger. There have been reports in recent times, for instance, of tigresses giving birth in sugarcane fields adjoining forests in the Terai regions of Uttar Pradesh.
Personnel from the Forest Department noting the details of a leopard attack on a goat in the Malizhap village in Aloke Taluka (Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria)
With no competition and easy prey available in the form of stray dogs, cattle, pigs and chicken among others it is not surprising that the leopard spread and established itself strongly across large parts of Akole taluka. In the initial years however, locals point out, that the numbers were neverlarge and sightings were very occasional, even rare.
Goats form an important part of the diets of leopards here and local residents have now started taking special care to protect their animals (Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria)
According to Ashok Ghule, a local farmer and employee of the forest department, the situation changed noticeably around 2003. This is when attacks on dogs and other domestic animals experienced an increase and locals also started reporting leopards regularly and in a manner that had never happened in the past. The leopard had clearly established itself and if anything Athreya's camera trapping project has provided irrefutable proof of what was a well-known reality.
There is another crucial element that Athreya brings into the discussion. "It is important to note,'' she points out, "that India is the only country in the world where high densities of people (more than 300 per sq. km on the average) and the highest livestock density in the world share their spaces with carnivores. We have still retained all (58 species in all, 14 species more than 10 kg and which can potentially be dangerous to humans) except the cheetah. Total elimination was never part of our culture."
A large number of locals come across as extremely tolerant towards the animal. While they worry and want their security, they are not demanding it at the cost of the leopard. "The tribal communities in the area are the most tolerant. The leopards, they say, are like the wind in the forest. Let them be. They also need food. Let them have it," said Ghule.
It is this ethic that needs to be examined more carefully and might have a partial explanation for the relatively successful co-existence that one sees in Akole. The comparison, even contradiction this is bound to immediately throw up, however, is the situation in neighbouring Junnar.
The conflict that peaked here in 2003 hit national headlines. Close to 50 people were attacked or killed by leopards in two years, and more than 100 leopards were captured for permanent incarceration from a landscape that was very similar to an Akole today.
The project research team visits a site in Ambad village where a goat had reportedly been picked up by a leopard the earlier day (Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria)If this happened in Junnar just a few years ago, why can it not happen in Akole in the near future. The answer is a difficult one to give, but one step might be to reverse the question. If nothing unsavoury has happened in Akole for so many years, why did Junnar suffer so badly just a few years ago. There must be more than that which meets the eye.
Tomorrow: Why is Junnar a conflict zone?
The changing landscape of Akole Taluka:
The last two-three decades has seen significant change in cropping patterns, thanks mainly to the availability of more water. A dry and arid landscape that supported only marginal and rainfed agriculture has changed drastically with the digging of more bore-wells, installation of pump sets and commissioning of lift irrigation schemes.
A region that could only grow less water intensive crops like Bajra, harbara and wheat now has a huge output of water guzzling crops like vegetables, flowers and importantly sugarcane. Availability of electricity and diesel to lift water has been an important contributor. “Take the example of Takli itself,” says Ashok Ghule, farmer and resident of Takli village. “In the early 70s,” he points out, “Takli did not have more than 10 pumps to pull up water. Now this village alone has at least 500. There has been a three times increase in agricultural land in Akole taluka in the last twenty years,” he adds, “and sugarcane too has increased significantly.” An important catalyst for this was the setting up in 1991 Of the Agasti Co-operative Sugar in Akole town. The demand for sugarcane increased and area under this low maintenance and high returns crop also increased over time.
Box 2: Leopard attacks in different parts of Maharashtra: 2001-2004
This included eight cases in Chalisgaon in Jalgaon district (– September to December 2004); the 50 and more very well publicized cases in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai (May to August 2004); the killing of one girl in Chinchkhed in Nashik district in August 2004; the death of another child in the Radhanagari Wildlife Sanctuary in Kolhapur district in February 2004; the six attacks in Yawal Wildlife Sanctuary and the nearly 50 cases that occurred in the Junnar Forest Division between 2001 and 2003.
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