Monday, February 16, 2009

The Leopards of Akole - 1

MAN ANIMAL-ROW: STUDY HOLDS VITAL CLUES (Pune Edition, Page 7), 16th Feb, 2009

Akole taluka of ahmednagar district has witnessed minimal human-wildlife conflicts in form of leopard attacks.

A female leopard that was photographed in Akole as part of the ongoing research project. This female was accompanied with two cubs and had come to the particular area to feed on a cow that had died recently on account of being electrocuted (Pic Courtesy: Vidya Athreya).


THE Junnar taluka of Pune district has witnessed repeated human-wildlife conflicts in the form of leopard attacks on humans and livestock. In sharp contrast, Akole taluka in Ahmednagar district has seen minimal of such conflict even though the leopard, cattle and humans live cheek-by-jowl. Writer, photographer and member of NGO Kalpvriksha PANKAJ SEKHSARIA presents a five-part series on this issue, written under the aegis of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) Media Fellowships.

At first glance, Ahmednagar district's Akole taluka appears to be like any another part of western Maharashtra's sugar belt. At it's centre is the town of Akole, a small bustling, disorganised town situated on the banks of the Pravara river. Extensive farmlands extend on either side of the river and the mosaic of rich greens peters out into a dominantly brown one as the lands continue into the foothills of the Sahyadris in the distance. Here the landscape turns mainly arid and dry and is dominated by scrub forest and bare open expanses.
It is certainly not surprising, then, if a first time casual visitor will indeed see nothing out of the ordinary. For those who are more observant, however, noticing the dogs here is bound to throw up the first big question. Dogs in the landscape anywhere in India are as ubiquitous as anything can be, and the situation in Akole is not different except for one significant detail – the collars around their necks. The dogs here have thick metal collars with mean looking spikes sticking out from them. It is an unlikely reality, but in the valley of river Pravara in Akole, this is the dog's best protection against an even more unlikely predator.

Dogs in this region can be seen with spiked metal collars around their neck. These collars are the dog’s best protection against the leopard. Dogs form a significant part of the leopard’s diet in these parts. (Pic by Pankaj Sekhsaria)

The forest area here is negligible, the land is cultivated intensely and the density of human population (more than 180 people / sq. km) is extremely high. (See Box 1). And yet this is also the territory of one of the world's smartest, most adaptable and efficient large predators, the leopard (See Box 2). It is an incredible, but little known reality that these agriculture dominated landscapes of Akole taluka and other neighbouring areas might indeed have some of the highest densities of the leopard found anywhere in India.
An Akole-like situation might indeed exist in others parts of Maharashtra and for that matter, India as well, but Akole is in some ways special. It is from here that we are getting the first scientific information and assessment of large carnivore presence and behaviour in human dominated landscapes as an outcome of a 'first of its kind' field biology project undertaken anywhere. Led by Pune based wildlife biologist, Vidya Athreya, a team of wildlife biologists, social scientists and local forest department staff have spent more than two years now studying the landscape, people's perceptions and leopard movement and behaviour in an area spread over nearly 300 sq km of Akole taluka.

Pic: Pankaj Sekhsaria

The initial response to the presence of leopards in such a landscape is bound to be of disbelief and even worry – Is this really true? Is it not an extremely risky situation? With so many people and their cattle, is it not a situation of guaranteed conflict? Is it desirable that such a ferocious and dangerous creature of the forest like the leopard, enter such territory and shouldn't one expect mayhem in the circumstances?
The worries and fears are undoubtedly real and justified and yet the situation is not what we first assume it will be. The reality in the taluka is that the leopard, the cattle and the humans all actually live cheek-by-jowl and yet the conflict is minimal if it is there at all. There is some tension and there is worry: goats, sheep, domestic pigs and dogs are regularly picked up by the leopard, but there has been no recorded attack on humans in Athreya's area of study in more than a decade. People are worried for their safety and for the safety of their children and yet there has never been the kind of demands for removing (or killing) the leopards or the reactions that were seen only a few years ago in neighbouring Junnar taluka that lies a little further.
There are two related questions here that immediately come to mind – a) What explains the presence of so many leopards in Akole and b) What led to such huge conflict in neighbouring Junnar just a few years ago, while there has been none in Akole at all? While it is difficult to claim a full understanding some pointers and answers are indeed available.
(To be concluded)

Box 1
Akole Taluka – An overview

A view of the agriculture dominated landscape of Akole Taluka in Ahmednagar district. This is also the landscape which is home to a large number of leopards, where importantly, cases leopard attacks on humans are virtually non-existent. (Pic by Pankaj Sekhsaria)

A significant majority of the people of Akole are farmers while the other main traditional livelihood is pastoralism. The total area of the taluka is nearly 1500 sq. kms, of which about a 1000 sq. kms is agricultural land. Census figures put the total population here at 2,71,719. Scheduled tribes form a significant chunk with their total number being 1,01,996. The area has seen a significant rise in prosperity in the last couple of decades thanks to the increased availability of water, primarily from bore-wells and the installation of lift irrigation schemes. Farmers here now grow a variety of crops that includes vegetables (cauliflower, tomatoes and onions that are mainly sent to Mumbai) wheat, maize, flowers and sugarcane. At the heart of the prosperity, or perhaps the most important causative factor, like it is across Western Maharashtra, is the Agasti Co-operative Sugar mill located in the heart of Akole town.

Box 2

The leopard

The leopard, Panthera pardus fusca is one of the most successful members of Indian big cat family. It is distributed throughout the subcontinent, including in the border nations of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and southern China. It is also found in a range of diverse habitats that includes dry deciduous forests, desert ecosystems, tropical rainforests, northern coniferous forests and in areas close to human habitation. What is significant is that it is an extremely versatile and adaptable creature. This adaptability is in large measure due to the animal’s rather catholic diet which even includes arthropods, amphibians, rotting carcasses, their lesser dependence on free water (obtaining it from their prey), and their smaller size. They can easily live alongside humans, even in areas where wild prey is scarce. Historical records going back more than a century testify to this fact, though often these reports are about leopards attacking and killing humans or when the leopards were themselves killed.

Leopards are commonly caged in village areas and then released in a nearby forests. This is a policy that has been one of the primary causes of the increase in human-wildlife conflict (Pic Courtesy: Vidya Athreya)


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

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