Urban Wilderness

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The success of India’s conservation efforts has spawned the ‘urban carnivore’. We need to decide how to deal with these animals

By Vidya Athreya

Spotted: The leopard has become an urban carnivore, always in the news for attacking people or getting attacked
Spotted The leopard has become an urban carnivore, always in the news for attacking people or getting attacked, Photo Courtesy: Project Waghoba

BOUND BY the limits of our understanding, we are like the proverbial blind men around the elephant when it comes to human-wildlife conflict. Except that it is not only the elephant but a whole range of wildlife, including leopards, wolves and hyenas, that are involved in the conflict. These animals challenge our knowledge, heckle managers and flummox scientists simply by being where they are apparently not supposed to. The proverbial elephant keeps rambling around, with the blind men astonished that it does not stand still.

Different groups of people view wild animals differently, ranging from complete intolerance to peaceful co-existence, the latter usually being indigenous people used to wildlife. However, governments and laws now aim to preserve wildlife, especially the larger, threatened species. There is a change in the mindset, from one of large-scale per persecution and killing to conservation. But, as a result, if the numbers of the wild increase and they start inhabiting human-use areas, how are we supposed to deal with them?

This is a global phenomenon. Species like the red fox, badger and raccoon in the UK and bears, mountain lions and coyotes in the US frequent human habitations. Bears even den under decks of homes. They feed on what humans provide in abundance — garbage, poultry waste and even pet food. The predators who reside in fairly densely populated human use areas now go by the term ‘urban carnivores’.

In India, the leopard is a good example of an urban carnivore. Regular news reports mention of it around villages and towns, either being attacked by people or attacking people. The reports usually state that encroachment and habitat loss have pushed the leopards out of forests. But leopards do not stray. They are very territorial and know where they are.

Protected Areas are small islands; they make up about 5 percent of our land area and the young wild animals will eventually have to disperse out of the sanctuaries in search of new homes. If the human settlements outside the sanctuaries have good habitat and food then the more adaptable species like leopards will settle in these areas as well. Century- old reports mention leopards coming to villages to prey on dogs and goats.

Moreover, large-bodied animals walk large distances. Sometimes when we hear of tigers in unexpected places, we do not appreciate that they are doing what they are programmed to do: disperse and in the process move across vast distances; sometimes hundreds of kilometres to find a territory to settle in.

Elephants also move large distances. Wild animals do not follow our administrative borders or stay put in designated forests. In a country like India where most of the land is occupied by humans, such natural movement brings wildlife close to human settlements.

Does this overlap of space necessarily spell doom for our relationship with large-bodied wildlife? Probably not, thanks to our cultural tolerance towards these species. In India, no animal is viewed as “evil” that should be exterminated. Although wild animals are poached for money or food, there is no cultural or political policy to wipe them out, which was the case in many countries abroad.

Rural people accept the presence of wildlife but severe conflict can reverse this acceptance. Human deaths caused by wild animals can seriously negate any conservation efforts. Therefore, it is very important that we do not fuel conflict through mismanagement. With the leopard, the most common method of dealing with the animal is to capture it from human-use areas and release it to nearby forests. Studies have found that such practice only worsens the problem as the animal tries to return to its territory through areas crowded with people, and chances for conflict increase.

Recent studies of leopards that are living close to human settlements show that the animal is highly adept at avoiding humans. They stay inactive during the day, even though sitting a few hundred yards away from people, and move only in the night, going very close to people’s houses without attacking humans. Attacks, although highlighted in the media, are in reality extremely rare compared to the number of leopards and the area they occupy.

Today, conservation and policy attention is focussed on protected forests. But it is in the human-use areas where the chances of conflict between wildlife and humans are higher. This requires us to make knowledge-based decisions. But, unfortunately, we know very little about the large wildlife, particularly when they occur in human-use areas. Perhaps it is time to untie our blindfolds and watch how the elephant moves.

Athreya is a wildlife biologist at Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bengaluru, whose research helped the MoEF to prepare its recent guideline to deal with human-leopard conflict

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