Leopard sightings across cities show the problem is human, not them | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Leopard sightings across cities show the problem is human, not them

BySukanya Datta,
Dec 21, 2023 12:23 AM IST

The reason for their more frequent sightings is simply India’s growing urban habitations. For instance, Gurugram and Delhi have grown into the Aravallis

Bengaluru/New Delhi/Gurugram Mumbai and Los Angeles have always had them — big cats living in wilderness bordering densely populated urban areas — but in recent years, leopards (which are the big cats in Mumbai; Los Angeles has mountain lions) are being spotted in more cities in India.

Leopard (PTI)
Leopard (PTI)

Delhi and Gurugram have had their share of sightings, but so have Bengaluru, Jaipur, and Shimla.

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Read here: Leopard on loose a ‘ticking time bomb’ warns wildlife expert

The leopard, which can coexist with humans as Mumbai’s experience has shown, abandoned now-urban landscapes due to extensive hunting till late 1960s, which resulted in wildlife conservationists saying that their population had fallen, even though they were not counted. However, conservation efforts since the enactment of Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), 1972, and more since 2008, when tiger landscapes received more protection through the amended WPA, have seen the leopard population climb to an estimated 12,852 in 2022 as compared to 7,910 in 2014, according to estimation studies of five major forest landscapes of India by the National Tiger Conservation Authority.

The reason for their more frequent sightings is simply India’s growing urban habitations. For instance, Gurugram and Delhi have grown into the Aravallis . Meanwhile, protected areas have become more crowded with big cats, although leopards have always been more urban and social than people think. Pranav Chanchani, lead species specialist at WWF-India, said it’s the leopard’s wide dietary repertoire which allows it to exist in semi-urban to urban spaces. “While the species occurs extensively across forests in India, leopards are also abundant along the margins of forests, and in secondary habitats comprising of scrublands, agricultural areas, degraded forests or patchy wilderness areas.”

And when cities grow into these areas, people get new and surprising neighbours.

Dellhi-NCR: Capital sightingsThe leopard found dead near Khatushyam temple in north Delhi’s Alipur on December 13 (a likely roadkill) is believed to have come from Rajaji National Park, about 200km east in Uttarakhand. The park falls in the Indo-Gangetic landscape covering Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, and the periphery of Delhi. A leopard from this landscape was spotted in north Delhi’s Usmapur, not far away from Alipur, in 2015, and near the Air Force station in north Delhi’s Narela in 2018. Faiyaz Khudsar, a senior biologist at Yamuna Biodiversity Park in north Delhi, said leopards have been sighted frequently in the northern part of the park at Palla alongside the Yamuna. “They walk along the Yamuna, which has abundant green cover for them to hide during the daytime, and enough prey for them to survive.”

Other than the Alipur leopard, most of the leopard sightings in and around Delhi have been in Aravallis, the 670km-long mountain range, one of the oldest in the world, that stretches from Palanpur in Gujarat to Delhi through Rajasthan and Haryana. “We see a good population of leopards in the Haryana side of the Aravallis. They are the top predators there, unlike in Sariska tiger reserve or Rajaji, where the tigers are the main predator,” said Sumit Dookia, a wildlife biologist and assistant professor at Delhi’s Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University (GGSIPU).

Leopards were recently sighted in Sainik Farms in south Delhi to Najafgarh in south-west Delhi. On December 1 and 6, a leopard was spotted multiple times near Sainik Farms. In February 2019, a leopard was seen at the Tilpath Valley Biodiversity Park in south Delhi, less than 2km away from Sainik Farms. In January 2021, a leopard was caught on multiple CCTV cameras in southwest Delhi’s Najafgarh.

In a 2016 study, which was carried out by Dehradun based Wildlife Institute (WII), the “presence” of 31 leopards was found in a 128km stretch in the Aravallis in Haryana. As the study was based on pug marks and leopard scat, the scientists believe the actual number could be much more.

MS Malik, the chief conservator of forests (wildlife) in Haryana, said the Wildlife Institute’s survey in 2012 and 2017 identified areas such as Gamroj (Bhondsi), Raipur (Raisina), Mangar and Gothda where leopards were frequently sighted. The 2012 survey estimated Gurugram’s leopard population at 50, which increased to 100 in the 2017 edition. “Now we estimate (there to be) 130-150 leopards,” said a senior Haryana forest official, adding that more leopards are now entering urban areas. In the southern Haryana districts of Gurugram and Faridabad, there have been several sightings of leopards in recent years. A a six-year-old male leopard was rescued from a Sector 25 home in Ballabgarh in January this year, and in July two leopard cubs were recovered from Mohammad Sajid of Kotla village by the state forest department.

In 2019-20, researchers from the Centre for Ecology Development and Research (CEDAR) and WWF-India covered a nearly 200km stretch of the Aravallis and claimed that the probability of encountering a leopard in the Mangar Bani stretch of the Aravallis was three times higher than that in Asola Wildlife Sanctuary. This is also complemented by data on leopard deaths on the Gurugram-Faridabad road; at least 10 such have been reported since 2015, including four juveniles trying to cross through a forest patch to find a new home further north towards Delhi in Asola Bhatti, which is in the heart of 6,200-hectare wide southern ridge (and close to Sainik Farms). The sanctuary, as per a joint mammal census carried between 2021 and 2022 by the Delhi Forest department and the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), has at least eight leopards, the highest in at least the past few decades.

Sohail Madan, former centre-manager at the sanctuary said leopards are likely moving towards Asola and Delhi, due to abundance of prey, nilgai (blue bulls) and stray dogs in nearby urban settlements.

Bengaluru: Silicon catsBengaluru’s story is one of growth. The Bengaluru Metropolitan Region has expanded by about 227% in two decades, from 226 sq km in 2001 to its current 741 sq km, according to government records.

The city’s population — which has shot up from about 8.4 million as of the 2011 census to an estimated 12.33 million in 2020, according to a UN report — has engulfed many of the leopard’s natural habitats. Bengaluru has lost nearly 500 hectares of green cover over the past few years, according to figures cited in the first week of December by Eshwar Khandre, Karnataka’s environment minister, while discussing the surge in wildlife sightings in the state assembly. The actual number is likely several times that.

Part of this loss has been in the dry, deciduous forests on the city’s fringes, which the leopards call home. Animal corridors are being lost to urban infrastructure such as peripheral ring roads, Khandre said in the assembly.

“Shrinking green cover has also led to a diminishing of natural prey, pushing leopards to increasingly seek out domestic animals, such as dogs or cattle, to survive,” said wildlife biologist Sanjay Gubbi, author of Leopard Diaries: The Rosette in India (2021).

By Gubbi’s estimate, there are about 35 leopards living on the fringes of Bengaluru. His figure is based on camera-trap studies he has conducted. There are no official estimates, BLG Swamy, deputy conservator of forests with the city’s municipal corporation, admitted.

“Our research (conducted with the research body Nature Conservation Foundation and released in 2019) shows that the 260-sq-km Bannerghatta National Park just outside the city hosts an additional population of about 40 leopards,” Gubbi added.

It’s not surprising, then, that two were sighted in October and November. Videos taken by residents — showing a leopard sauntering down city streets — went viral in end-October. A forest department team tracked it for five days, hoping to capture it and return it to a wild habitat. The animal was eventually shot on November 1, in the suburb of Singasandra, after it attacked a forest official and a veterinarian on the team. The wild cat died on the way to the hospital. Residents in nearby Chikkathoguru reported another leopard sighting a few days later.

Gubbi said human-animal conflict can never be zero and added that it has to be brought down to manageable limits, where the animal and humans are both safe. “Nowadays, even the mere sighting of leopards is assumedto be conflict”.

Jaipur: Peaceful coexistenceThe Jalana Reserve Forest, which is part of Aravalli range and runs parallel to the concrete jungle of Jaipur, is a classic example of peaceful coexistence of people and leopards. This 29 sq km island-forest is surrounded by the city of Jaipur and its population of 4.1 million people. A former hunting ground for the royal family of Jaipur, Jhalana was declared a Reserve Forest in 2017, following a survey by the forest department which found leopards in stress due to high human presence there.

The leopard population of Jalana has persisted, and thrived, despite continuous disturbance and anthropogenic activities around and within the forest. There are 18 villages in vicinity of the reserve and five of them have reported high conflict with leopards, including killing of cattle and dogs. Locals say that illegal stone mining also happens in close vicinity of the forest reserve. Despite that, there are several camera trap pictures of leopards entering the villages in the night, hunting prey and returning, without troubling people.

There are about 30 leopards in Jalana, one of the highest recorded densities of the big cat. “This high density demonstrates the adaptability of leopards to anthropogenic changes and suggests there is ample prey in and around the reserve,” said Swapnil Khumbhojkar, who has done extensive research with Rajasthan forest department on survival of leopards in Jalana. He added that a scat analysis shows that these big cats of Jalana are almost completely dependent on domestic prey such as dogs, cats and goats.

Shimla: Leopard on the MallLeopards were always there in the dense forests in and around Shimla but they were rarely spotted in numbers in town. However, in recent years, leopards have been spotted close to homes in localities such as Sanjauli, Summerhill, where the famous Viceregal Lodge is, Tutikandi, and St Bede’s College.

In 2021, two children were allegedly killed by a leopard near Shimla’s Down Dale and Kanlog, just 3km downhill of Mall Road. In February 2022, a leopard was spotted by a woman in US Club, a locality for workers built by the British, half a kilometre uphill of Mall Road. A year later in February 2023, a leopard with a cub was spotted roaming in Komali Bank area, next to state’s legislative assembly, on Mall Road, the town’s busiest and most popular stretch.

Additional Conservator of Forest, Himachal Pradesh, Ravi Kumar, said the since days of the British, leopards have alongside with people in Shimla but due to increase in anthropogenic pressures they are being spotted more in localities, especially during winter months, in recent years.

A town built to accommodate around 10,000 people now has population over two lakh. Most of the agricultural land in the foothills of Shimla town, which was once home for leopards, has been converted into residences, forcing the leopards to look for new homes. “The unplanned expansion of Shimla in the past decade or so is a reason for more sighting or leopard attacks,” said a senior HP forest department official who asked not to be named. As many as 53 leopard attacks were reported across the state in the last six years in which seven persons were killed.

Ending conflict key for urban areas Conflict between people in urban areas and leopards is not a new but more leopards are being sighted in India’s metropolitan cities . According to a study done in 2014 by leopard specialist Vidya Athreya, 11,909 people were killed in leopard attacks between 1875 and 1912. However, there is no record of people killed in leopard attacks since Independence.

The Wildlife Protection Society of India shows that 4,147 leopards have died between 1994 and 2022, indicating high human conflict. With over 65% of protected areas in India having human settlements in or around them, and with around 1.4 billion people in the country, even the most remote wilderness has some degree of human-wildlife interaction. In years to come, more urban areas will have leopards in the neighbourhood and living with them would be a reality, like it was centuries ago.

Read here: Leopard attacks minor girl in village near Koregaon Bhima

Wildlife experts said the forest departments need to create awareness among people on how to share their space with leopards, like the Warli tribe, which lives in Aarey forest in Mumbai, does. The tribe worships deities including Waghoba, whose manifestation includes a leopard. In some other places such as Rajasthan, indigenous religious leaders consider the leopard sacred.

Athreya, who is affiliated to non-profit Wildlife Conservation Society, said recent decades have witnessed conflicts between people and leopards across India, claiming both human and leopard lives. “Human-leopard conflict is a reality and authorities cannot brush it under the carpet. Most often officials are unprepared when wild animals are seen in and around the human habitation. The first reaction is to capture them, which may not be right, as it could lead to additional stress for a leopard,” she said.

And when this happens, as that viral video from Gurugram showing a leopard being teased, cornered, and assaulted shows , the problem isn’t really the big cat -- it is us.

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