Leopards have been discovered living in a heavily populated, heavily agricultural area in India that offers the animals no natural wilderness for hunting, according to a report published today in science journal, PLOS One. A team of Norwegian and Indian researchers set up photo traps to record pictures of animals in an area of Maharashtra, India which has a human population density of more than 300 people per square kilometer. They recorded an unexpectedly high population of large carnivores living quietly and mostly unnoticed — including an average of almost 5 adult leopards per every 100 square kilometers — despite the fact that there was essentially no wild prey in the study area.
These leopards are apparently feeding on farm animals and domestic dogs, because there weren’t any reports in the area of leopards attacking people. That may be why this so-called backyard population had gone unnoticed before.
The team wrote that, “India has a high diversity of large carnivores, many of which share spaces with one of the highest human and livestock populations in the world.” The most common large, dangerous carnivore there is the leopard, Panthera pardus, which can and does attack human beings in many other areas.
For example, a human-hunting leopard in Nepal was reported to have killed and eaten 15 people, two-thirds of them children aged 10 or younger. The other victims were older children and one 29-year-old woman, suggesting that the leopard was deliberately targeting the most vulnerable prey.
In a widely reported 2011 incident, a leopard wandered into a village in India and became startled when villagers raised the alarm. The animal fought back, injuring 11 people, some of them severely. Forest guards tried to tranquilize the leopard but police officers attacked with batons and knives when they realized that three policemen had been badly hurt. The leopard was subdued but it ultimately died of its injuries.
Today’s study noted that many wildlife officers assume that leopards reported outside wilderness areas are lost. Therefore, they attempt to tranquilize and return the animals to a protected forest area. A sample project might be South Africa’s Leopard Conservation Project which has participated in over 75 successful captures since they started operating in 2000.
But that technique won’t work if the leopards in question aren’t really strays. These backyard leopards may not even feel at home in the forest, and they may not stay there even if they are captured and transferred to protected wilderness areas.
Judging from the photos, the team said that they have clear evidence that the Maharashtra leopards are not strays, which tend to be young animals that have been pushed off their territory once the parents feel they’re old enough to survive on their own. The researchers were able to identify 11 sexually mature individuals — five males and six females. Three females had cubs with them at some point during the survey.
“There is a clear need to recognize that these potentially conflict causing species can, and will, colonise many areas and that their management cannot only be based on a hands-off policy,” wrote Vidya Athreya and colleagues.
In other words, wildlife officers need to figure out a plan for people to live peacefully with backyard leopards before it’s too late.
[photo wild leopard in Masai Mara, Kenya by Elaine Radford]