New Study for Understanding Leopards

23 November 2015 | Wildlife Conservation Society News Release

In a novel study that relied on newspaper reports of “leopard conflict incidents,” scientists with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s India Program and Centre for Wildlife Studies carried out the first-ever regional scale assessment of leopard populations in human-use areas in Karnataka.

When humans and large carnivores occupy the same areas, conflict between the two can occur, resulting in negative interactions and outcomes for both. Lack of knowledge on leopard ecology in human-use areas leads to ill-informed interventions that can cause more harm than good. This new study looked to obtain facts on leopard ecology to  inform decision-making with regard to management.

The authors gathered reports covering a 14-month study period (March 2013 to April 2014). Using an advanced statistical method known as occupancy modelling, they were able to map such indicators as leopard distribution patterns and hotspots for interactions with humans and livestock.

During the study period, 245 cases of human-leopard interactions in Karnataka’s 175 taluks (sub-districts) were reported. There were 32 instances of attacks on humans, including three fatalities. ​Also documented were the ​​capture and translocation of 56 leopards; 91percent of them were in response to attacks on livestock​ or mere sightings of leopards.

The authors noted that some translocations appeared to disregard the government’s own guidelines on human-leopard conflict management issued in 2011​. Alarmingly, leopard translocations  were found to be associated with increased probabilities of leopard attacks​ on livestock/humans.

The study highlights the fact that resurgence of large carnivores in human landscapes, thanks to increasing human acceptance, now needs to be buttressed by management actions based on research that generates knowledge about their ecology,” said Dr. Ullas Karanth, Director for Science-Asia, for the Wildlife Conservation Society.

An advantage of the methodology used in the study was that is enables scientists to obtain information from human-use landscapes across a large geographic area, where other methods such as camera-trap surveys would not be feasible.

Results indicated that leopards were distributed over 84,000 square kilometers of area (in Karnataka), excluding​ designated ​national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Presence of free-ranging​ dogs,​ cover, rocky escarpments ​and​ irrigated crop fields emerged as the environmental factors​ most likely influence leopard presence​. According to the scientists, the correlation between livestock density to leopard presence was not as strong.

Contrary to the popular notion that leopards in human-dominated areas are “straying animals,” the study recorded 19 ​reports of cubs born in agricultural fields​, indicating the presence of breeding resident females. Also, poaching and road-kills account for the highest number of leopard mortalities in the region.

Based on these findings, the authors suggest a shift in management approach from reactive conflict redressal involving capture and translocation ​to proactive community based interventions that ensure safety of people and livestock. They recommend prompt and fair compensation for losses caused by leopards to prevent retaliations and awareness drives to enhance people’s understanding and acceptance of these adaptable cats in human landscapes.

“Spotted in the news: Using media reports to examine leopard distribution, depredation, and management practices outside protected areas in southern India” occurs in the current version of the international scientific journal PLoS One [10(11): e0142647]. Co-authors include Vidya Athreya,  Arjun Srivathsa, Mahi Puri, Krithi Karanth, Samba Kumar and Ullas Karanth of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Centre for Wildlife Studies.

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