This post belongs to a series written by students in the Conservation Biology course BSC4052 at the University of South Florida. This course provides an overview of major themes in conservation practice and related applied problems in biology, including: population ecology in the context of conservation, patterns of diversity, valuing diversity, threats to diversity, management actions and strategies for preserving diversity.
Author: Shani Scwartz was originally born in Israel, and moved to the US with her parents and younger brother when was she was three years old. She attended a Jewish day school for 8 years, then Oxbridge Academy of the Palm beaches for high school. At USF, her major is Integrative Animal Biology, and she has always had a love for animals and especially conservation biology. At USF, Shani has been on the sailing team for three years now, where she races competitively every weekend. Sailing has opened many doors for her, like having a leadership role in the Student Athlete Advisory Committee. Shani will be attending Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine this upcoming fall to pursue her DO degree. As for right now, she would like to be matched with an OBGYN residency.
Original paper: Naha D., Sathyakumar S. and Rawat, G.S., 2018. Understanding drivers of human-leopard conflicts in the Indian Himalayan region: Spatio-temporal patterns of conflicts and perception of local communities towards conserving large carnivores. PlosOne 13:1–19. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0204528
Conflicts between humans and leopards in India have increased in frequency over the past few decades, due to habitat fragmentation and a decrease in human tolerance towards wildlife. To assess the long-term effects of this conflict, researchers studied two distinct regions in India to track the opinions of local communities on leopards. The researchers compared local sentiment about leopards to records and found that local opinions are related to distance from leopard habitat and history of attacks: the region in which humans live in closest proximity to the leopards’ habitat (Pauri), has had many more attacks and people hold much more negative views towards leopards.
The human-leopard conflict
Over the past decade, there have been increasing conflicts between humans and leopards (Panthera pardus) in India (Rattan, 2015). Leopards have encroached into villages as land development has increased and populations of wild prey have been replaced by the introduction of livestock. Leopards are feared and known to attack humans, livestock, and property. For these reasons, nearly 200 leopards are killed in India every year (Rattan, 2015). However, leopards are considered an endangered species under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act and actions to reduce conflicts with humans are therefore needed to ensure the long-term persistence of leopards in these regions. In a recent study, researchers set out to record local opinions on leopard conservation efforts in two regions of India and identify areas in high risk of leopard attacks through local records.
Two regions with different patterns of human-leopard habitats and patterns of attack
The two regions assessed were Pauri Garwhal and North Bengal, which are in the western and eastern part of the Indian Himalayans, respectively. Pauri is very biodiverse, ranging from dry to moist-temperate forests that are ideal habitats for leopards (Flora and Fauna of Pauri, 2019). The towns and villages in Pauri are in low-lying plains, essentially intertwined with the natural habitat of the wild leopards. In North Bengal there is a clear distinction between human villages and leopard habitat, yet tea estate gardens (an important tourist attraction where tea is still harvested), are very close to the leopards habitat (Egiya, 2017). Given that leopards are extremely territorial (Rattan 2015), it is evidently dangerous for humans to live too close to them.
Pattern of attacks
Based on local government records, from 2004-2016, there was a much greater number of leopard attacks on humans in Pauri (40%) than in North Bengal (3%) (Naha et al., 2018). These percentages were calculated based on records available from local governments. In Pauri, the most common victims of leopard attacks were children and women, while in North Bengal it was adult tea estate workers.
Local opinion differs between regions
Surveys of residents in each region showed that the perception of leopards differed drastically between the local communities in North Bengal and Pauri. In North Bengal, where the tea estates are, 76% of the people who were surveyed believe that leopard attacks are accidental, and so they feel positively about the conservation of the leopard. Meanwhile, 89% of respondents in Pauri feel that the leopard attacks are deliberate and done so without provocation (Naha et al., 2018). The researchers concluded that the perception of leopards in Pauri is damaged due to the increasing number of attacks on women and children in the community, since they are the ones that normally have to venture out to collect food and water for the rest of the family. These results highlight the need for management actions to reduce the human-leopard conflict.
Preventing future attacks
Naha and colleagues offered many solutions to reduce this conflict, which center around three main ideas: 1) reducing encounters between humans and leopards, 2) responding quickly when leopards are in close proximity to settlements and 3) education and outreach. Reducing encounters between humans and leopards can be achieved with thoughtful land development strategies which minimize encroachment on the leopard’s habitat, by setting up fences or other boundaries to keep leopards out of human settlements, or by using non-lethal wildlife deterrents. Response time can be improved as a result of this research: the risk maps developed in this project can help identify conflict hotspots where motion sensors could be used to quickly alert a Village Response team trained in wild animal encounters. Finally, several outreach programs could help educate the local communities about leopard behavior, which may help reduce the attacks.
The escalation in human-leopard conflicts over the past decade is worrisome in light of their high extinction risk: leopard populations are decreasing globally (Rattan, 2015) and they are classified as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. This research presents specific ways in which we can reduce the human-leopard conflict, which is a positive step toward their conservation.
Egiya, B. 2017. About North Bengal. North Bengal Development Department. http://wbnorthbengaldev.gov.in/htmlpage/index.aspx
Flora and Fauna of Pauri. 2019. Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board. https://uttarakhandtourism.gov.in/
Naha D., Sathyakumar S. and Rawat, G.S., 2018. Understanding drivers of human-leopard conflicts in the Indian Himalayan region: Spatio-temporal patterns of conflicts and perception of local communities towards conserving large carnivores. PlosOne 13:1–19. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0204528
Rattan, T. 2015. Human-Leopard Conflict: Big Cats Losing Battle for Survival.” Wildlife and Biodiversity. Down to Earth. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/wildlife-biodiversity/human-leopard-conflict-big-cats-losing-battle-for-survival-43734