If humans and big carnivorous animals live in the same region, there is inevitably going to be bloodshed, right? Not necessarily. One area in India is lousy with leopards, and not only are people not worried, some don’t even believe the leopards are there.
If you land in Mumbai, on the west side of India, get in a car, and drive about 600km northeast of the city, you will reach a little farming area called Akole. This used to be a dry region, but with reliable irrigation, it has become a prosperous farming region that grows sugarcane, among other crops. About 160 square kilometres of farmland supports a population of nearly 36,000 humans. It also supports a troupe of five hyenas, and at least five adult leopards.
This came as a shock to a group of researchers who went out to Akole with cameras to estimate the leopard population. Most people in Akole knew they shared their living space with leopards — although some didn’t believe it. Goats, cattle, and dogs went missing, and leopard scat was visible on trails. Still, leopard-wise, Akole was more of a metropolis than some wildlife preserves. In a slightly wider area, camera traps spotted 11 adult leopards and four cubs. Akole farm workers wander alone. Children play outside. No one had ever been attacked by a leopard.
When a few leopards were captured, because they had blundered into traps (and one old male had fallen in a well), researchers saw a chance to find out why these leopards were so peaceable. They collared the leopards and let them go. Two of the leopards, a pregnant female and an old male, were released well away from their capture sites. The others were released only a short distance away. The pregnant female went on the move until she gave birth, staying in the forest and turning up back in Akole about five months later. The older male walked until he reached the outskirts of Mumbai. His radio collar stopped working after only 42 days, but it appears he lived quietly on the outskirts of the city until he was hit by a car two years later.
The leopards released near their capture sites went right back to civilisation. The picture above shows how they behaved once they got there. In the square on the left, the village is the grey polygon, the black line shows the range of a female leopard, and the grey line shows the range of a male. In the square on the left, the white dots are houses. Around them you can see 25, 50, and 75 metre buffers. The red dots are leopard locations, taken every three hours from the GPS collars.
The leopards walked through the village freely. One leopard visited one house five times during the study. No one saw them — except the cameras — because they almost never came to the village during the day. Leopards that lived in closer contact with people were more strictly nocturnal than leopards that remained in sparsely populated areas. They stayed out of sight, ate pigs, stray dogs, and other city animals, and didn’t come near humans.
Why do these leopards leave humans alone while others attack? One of the researchers who collared the leopards, Vidya Athreya, has an idea about that. Athreya spent years working in areas with man-eating leopards. In those areas, whenever anyone spotted a leopard, the cat was hunted, tranquilized, and moved into the wilderness. It could be that by relocating big carnivores whenever we spot them, we are exporting animals that know to not prey on humans and opening up space for animals that don’t know to not prey on humans.
A leopard that raises its cubs to go out only at night, stay out of sight, and eat the occasional goat or dog is much safer than a leopard that has just come in out of the wild and doesn’t know the ropes. Maybe the best thing to do with carnivores is to allow them to adjust to us.