Leopards are among the highly threatened species in India and classified as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN. Being an extremely adaptable species, leopards are distributed widely in forests as well as in human-use areas across large parts of India. Considering their close spatial association with humans (who are often unaware of the leopards living around them), leopards come into conflict only exceedingly rarely.

Our early work focused on relationships between leopards, tigers and dhole, using a combination of diet analysis (from scats and kills) and radio-telemetry. Along with assessing tiger population dynamics, WCS-India’s large-scale and long-term camera trap surveys have yielded robust camera trap image data of thousands of individual leopards cumulatively, allowing ‘snapshot’ estimation of leopard densities and abundances using (spatial) capture-recapture modelling, as well as assessments of population dynamic parameters such as annual survival and recruitment over time.

Maharashtra: Research has mainly focussed on human-dominated landscapes (e.g. agricultural lands) and forests embedded within high-density human use areas. We work with the Maharashtra Forest Department to understand and ease the conflict between leopards and humans in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in Mumbai. The organisation also works in landscapes as varied as the tea estates of West Bengal to the hills of Himachal and rural landscapes of Uttarakhand bordering forests, to help mitigate human-leopard conflicts. The common observation has been the need to involve the locals in conservation efforts. Towards this, the team has been using traditional and scientific inputs to alleviate fear among the locals and make a case for co-existence of man and animal. Monitoring the leopard population and tracking the animal has helped give useful insights into its behaviour.

In the early 2000s leopard attacks around Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) and its adjoining areas of Aarey Milk Colony were common. It was also common for forest officials to trap leopards from outside SGNP and release them inside the park. Based on work in rural Maharashtra, WCS had cautioned that releasing leopards into the park would increase conflict. When widespread attacks on humans and the subsequent media frenzy triggered public rage, more than 30 leopards were shifted to a rescue centre between 2004 and 2005.

Our research associate studied leopard movement and behaviour around the landscape using hidden camera traps. The footage showed leopards prowling for prey on the same paths and trails that humans use – but careful enough to keep their jaunts nocturnal so as to avoid a confrontation.

Today, Mumbai has one of the highest densities of leopards in the country at 22 per 100 square km and they co-exist peacefully with the metropolis’ teeming human population. Leopard attacks have come down significantly, thanks to insights into leopard behaviour from WCS-India study. Today, a citizen-state initiative, ‘Mumbaikars for SGNP’ rapidly responds to conflict situations and leopards are now trapped and rescued in secret operations, pre-empting conflicts. Monitoring the big cat population and understanding their behaviour has contributed significantly towards allowing man and animal to share their living spaces.

Himachal Pradesh:  A research student working with WCS-India studied ways of creating awareness on co-existence through programs for schools and forest officials. Tales of the big cat deity Waghoba that is worshipped by forest communities in central India were used to drive home lessons of co-existence. Insights from our decade-long research on leopard behavior in Maharashtra are being extrapolated to high conflict areas of Uttarakhand. The popular method of translocating leopards from shared spaces is being replaced by awareness and sensitization programs so that locals learn to co-exist with the big cats rather than drive them away.

West Bengal: Leopard and elephant attacks were leading to a heavy loss of life, limb and crops in the bio-diversity hotspots of Jalpaiguri and Duars of northern West Bengal. With tea estates and agricultural lands regularly intersecting forests, these areas host a high human population and see large-scale movement of leopards and elephants.

Our study in association with the Duars Branch of Indian Tea Association, Tea Association of India, West Bengal Forest Department, Asian Nature Conservation Foundation, and Indian Institute of Science, has been studying ways to resolve human-animal conflict through methods such as camera trappings of leopards and elephant drives, as well as providing compensation to humans.

Conservation can succeed only when it does not negatively impact humans, underlining the importance of local assistance in conservation efforts. The team continues to work in more than 60 tea estates and over 40 villages in the region, with people in 17 high conflict areas being taught measures to avoid encounters from the wild.