Living with Leopards with Dr Vidya Athreya
Dr Vidya Athreya, PhD, is an award winning wildlife scientist who has been working on the human-leopard interactions for more than a decade. Athreya has done her field research in Maharashtra — a state where leopards and people share “croplands” and human
Q: When we talk of wildlife, what comes to our mind are national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. But unknown to many, there is the presence of wildlife outside these protected areas – in the fringes of villages and cities. How do humans co-exist with leopards?
A: When I started working in the rural areas of western Maharashtra, in the Nashik-Pune districts, I realized that there were a lot of leopards and hyenas in these areas with permanent irrigation. The change in habitat here is really interesting. A few years back, these areas were semi-arid, prone to drought and bereft of any irrigation. Wild animals like wolves, which live in drier areas, were found here. But once irrigation started crops and vegetation covered these lands, the habitat changed and the wolves left and species like leopards and hyenas started inhabiting these landscapes. I was surprised to find them in this habitat as we were taught that wildlife is to be found in the wild and not in human spaces. So, I had to unlearn some of my training and because what I saw was very different.
Q: Tell us about your field research on leopards in the rural habitation in Maharashtra?
A: As part of our field research in Maharashtra, we were trying to understand how large cats like leopards live in rural habitation. The forest department was very keen that we ‘radio collar’ the animals in order to track them. A radio collar, which is put around the animal's neck, has a chip that gets its location. Like a mobile phone, these collars have a GPS-enabled system and the location of the animal is sent to the computer via SMS.
Q: Why do you need radio collars to study leopards?
A: That’s because wild animals are secretive, especially when they live among humans. It's really hard to see them or to study their behaviour based on their visual studies so we use these collars.
Q: Your research work on this particular leopard ‘Ajoba’ made national and international headlines almost a decade ago. Share with us your experience of tracking his fascinating journey?
A: Actually, in these human habitats leopards kill a lot of domestic dogs for food. It so happened that this particular leopard chased a dog which fell in a well in an agricultural field and the leopard too fell after it. When the leopard was taken out of the well, the police department contacted us and we got a radio collar attached on him. He was released in the nearest forest area and to our greatest surprise using this technology we could track where he was going. This meant we knew where he was remotely by logging on to the computer. Very soon we realised that he is making a beeline or a ‘leopard line’ for Bombay!
This leopard, whom we named Ajoba, walked several kilometers for days and surprised us as he crossed the Mumbai-Agra Highway, the Kasara Railway Station, two other wildlife sanctuaries yet didn't stay in any of these places. He finally reached the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai where he lived for two years. After two years he was found killed in a road accident.
Q: Why did you name him Ajoba? Do big cats actually behave like human beings when it comes to locating and settling in their habitat?
A: Ajoba means “grandfather” in Marathi and when we captured him he was like this gentle old cat. It was fitting to call him grandfather. Normally, the cats behave just like human beings when it comes to habitat. For example, if you pick up a teenager and send him to the US, he may or may not stay there but in case of a senior person, who has a family here he is definitely going to come back. It's very similar in these animals where the younger animals can go and make new homes elsewhere, however the older animals invariably return home. You can see that even in a house cat or a domestic dog. We believe Ajoba went back to Bombay because that's where his home was. We don't have proof but the way he went back - he knew where he was going - his path which you can see on the map just takes him back to Mumbai and he stayed there for two years.
Q: A Marathi film based Ajoba by a national-award winning filmmaker was also produced. Tell us about the film and how was it like to be portrayed by Urmila Matondkar?
A: Ajoba’s story really inspired a lot of people and I think when Sujay Dahake, the filmmaker, read it in a news article, he decided this is going to be his next protagonist in the movie and that's how the movie was made. It was a really interesting experience because that is not where I belong. Their world seems so different than biology so it was really interesting to get together and make this movie.
Q: Ajoba traveled through multiple landscapes – forest, national highways, railway station, etc. Narrate how a leopard travels through various habitats?
A: Ajoba was caught in a village landscape and was released into the forests of the Western Ghats, which has tribal communities living in it. Our presumption was that he was going to live there because it's a forested landscape, doesn't have many human beings but to our greatest surprise he walked up the Western Ghats and started moving westwards and this was taking him through rural landscapes. He was moving in the night, crossing agricultural fields and human habitations and resting during the day, pretty much what most wild animals do when they are using human dominated landscapes. They are active only in the night.
After Ajoba reached his destination – Sanjay Gandhi National Park - he lived in the northern part of the park for two years. One day we got a call from a passerby who found a leopard hit in a road accident near the park. He put the unconscious animal in the boot of his car and drove for an hour to the national park but it leopard died on the way. The collar had fallen off by then but we identified it as Ajoba through a microchip we had implanted.
Q: The sugarcane belt in Maharashtra is where villagers co-habit with leopards. Most of the time, the cats move cautiously and are chased away by villagers if they happen to cross path. But with habitats shrinking, there have been instances where many wild cats have met with violent deaths in villages. Images of conflict are shared in the public domain through newspapers and social media. On one hand there is peaceful sharing of habitat while on the other these macabre killings. How do you explain this?
A: Human beings are never homogeneous. The way human beings respond to leopards even the farmers is like how city people respond to dogs. There are some who really love them and another lot which don’t. In any wildlife issue, there's always a conflict.
It's not that every farmer is comfortable with leopards around but what we have seen is that more or less they are much more accepting not just of leopards but other jungle cats like hyenas. The rural people in India are much more accepting of these animals than we believed them to be. It's a new emerging field of study where we are trying to understand how people view or perceive these animals in their landscape and our studies have shown that where people have shared these landscapes with the wild for a very long time now.
Q: Your observations on the history of shared spaces?
A: One has to realize that these human-dominated rural croplands did not come up overnight. These are very old civilizations which have lived there for centuries and so have all the animals. It's a history of shared space. Our findings say where there's a longer history of shared spaces, there seems to be many mechanisms and a greater understanding of the species that humans share the space with. They are not as fearful as people who have never lived with these animals.
The media reports incidences which get sensational responses. During my field work, to my greatest surprise I found that attacks on humans are rare. What is more common is people interacting with these animals, as they come to the houses at night to drink water kept for livestock. It's a couple of things that have led to us believing that it's only conflict. We did some camera trapping in the town of Shimla and here too the leopards are seen using human landscape but they have learned that they need to use it only in the night.
Q: Your experiences in and around Shimla, where you had a similar research project?
A: It is not just Shimla but even in the surrounding areas which have a lot of forest cover, one can see the same history of co-habitation. I remember once a forest guard took me to the house of a member the village panchayat where a leopard we were tracking would visit. The owner of the house, who had his infant grandchild with him, told us how the leopard would cross his front yard at night. He protected his livestock with a proper shed which was completely covered in the night. We got a spectacular image of this leopard in front of his house.
Q: What we understand from your work cats like leopards use fringe areas as the core forest habitats are used by bigger predators like the tiger. With the village landscapes changing where do we see the leopard in the future?
Large species like elephants need large spaces and habitat loss is accelerating the conflict of space. We talk about habitat loss but sadly it is something we can only protest but can't control. What can we control is how people respond to these animals - find a solution and that is the way I see this going forward. We can at least change the way people deal with these situations.
At the end of the day man is the ultimate predator on the planet. We may think that these cats are the predators but who kills wildlife in largest numbers are human beings. It's been like this for centuries.