Saturday, October 16, 2010

Translocation of 'problem' animals is no solution to the human-wildlife conflict

The New Indian Express, 16th Oct 2010

A first of its kind satellite tracking project to monitor leopards in India recently released data of a young male leopard’s remarkable journey from the hinterland to the forests of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai. The leopard that was trapped in a well in the small town of Alephata, in Pune District was fitted with a satellite collar and released in the nearby forests of Malshej Ghat. In the 23 days that followed, the animal walked through agricultural lands, densely populated human habitations, across roads, a railway line and swam across a creek to cover a distance of 120 kms and reach the green oasis in the heart of India’s commercial capital.

The leopard when it was found trapped in the well. It was collared as part of the research project by the team (below). On the right is lead researcher, Vidya Athreya (Photo Courtesy: Project Waghoba)

Wildlife biologist Vidya Athreya, who is lead researcher of Project Waghoba ( that seeks to study leopard presence and behaviour in human-dominated landscapes, believes that this proof of the leopard’s journey has important policy implications to deal with cases of human-wildlife conflict across India. The first indications of this had been evident to her in 2003, when she started researching human-leopard conflict in the agriculture-dominated landscapes of Western Maharashtra. It is linked to a spate of incidents in the forests of Yawal WLS located in Jalgaon district of Maharashtra. These forests are inhabited by a range of wild animals including large carnivores such as leopards. They have also been dotted with human settlements for a very long time and yet there had been no instances of conflict with the carnivore that is one of the most intelligent and adaptive of wild cats.

All this suddenly changed towards the end of 2003. The two-month period from October 31 to December 24 saw six vicious attacks by leopards in the region that had not experienced a single one till then. The attacks stopped only when trap cages were put up and two leopards were caught in them. These were the same animals that had, only a few months ago, terrorised the human population in the agriculture-dominated landscape of Junnar near the city of Pune. Labelled ‘straying’ animals, they were trapped here and as per existing management policy moved 400 km to the forests of Yawal, where they were released back into the ‘wild’.

The identity of the leopards, the reason for their presence and the explanation of the attacks lay in a small electronic tag that lay inserted at the base of the tail of these animals. They had been electronically tagged before release as part of a pioneering research project by the Maharashtra Forest Department and assisted by Athreya and wildlife veterinarian Dr Aniruddh Belsare. The rice-grain-sized tag can be read like a bar-code in the supermarket and it was hoped that the tagging would help track the problem animals once they were captured and set free elsewhere. In the case of Yawal, Athreya and Belsare had shown that translocation of the problem leopards was no solution at all; it lay at the root of the problem. The translocation of the animal from the area of conflict had in fact caused the conflict to move to new areas. The animals had taken the conflict with then, and significantly, to an area where it had never existed.

The explanation lies in a simple fact of animal behaviour and biology. Translocated animals are forced to negotiate unfamiliar territory and this increases the chance of conflict. The stress encountered during the move itself can also result in an animal becoming more aggressive and problematic. Territorial animals like bears, leopards and tigers have a very strong homing tendency and instinctively try to return to the area from which they have been moved. “In the case of Yawal,” notes Athreya, “one of the problem animals was captured 90 km from its site of release in the direction of Junnar, the town from where it had been brought. ”

This was borne out again earlier in June this year, when an elephant from a herd responsible for large-scale damage was captured in the Hassan district of Karnataka. It was moved to the Bandipur National Park but had walked back 70 km towards its home territory within days. In another documented case in 2005, a herd of 20 elephants was relocated from the Hambantota town in south east Sri Lanka to the Yala National Park. One of them was radio-collared by the Centre for Conservation and Research and the Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation to track the progress of the relocation process. The collared animal, the researchers found out, was back at its original site in Hambantota in a few days time.

There is increasing evidence that translocation of what are considered ‘problem animals’ is no solution at all. “Translocation,” says Athreya, “is a procedure commonly used to deal with people or animals which are a problem. It is reactive and involves large amounts of resources. What we require are proactive processes, but these can be devised only after a careful analysis of the problem, be it conflict between villagers and wildlife in protected areas or in croplands.” Modern technology like micro-chipping, use of satellite and radio collars and innovative research projects are for the first time, giving important insights into the hitherto unknown outcomes of translocation projects.

— The writer is an environmental researcher, writer and photographer.

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