By Mrunal Ghosalkar
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I grew up watching wildlife channels on television with my father featuring all my favorite wild animals in the dense forests. I used to like watching big cats and how they hunted their prey. I had never been to forests in my childhood, though. The only information I was getting about wildlife was from television. I always pictured in mind that all wild animals live in forests only and nowhere else. But, when I grew up, I realized that reality is actually slightly different.
When I was a child, my grandparents used to tell me about big cats. They would tell me that all the big and wild cats are like our house cat itself. Their behaviors are mostly the same, since they belong to the cat (felid) family. Domestic cats are considered to be the aunts of wild tigers and leopards, as people say in Marathi – मांजर ही वाघाची मावशी असते (Manjar hi bagachi maushi aste). This is all that I knew, as I had never seen them as a child.
So, here’s my question for you: what do you know about leopards? Where do they live and what do they do each day? Come, let’s learn about this beautiful spotted cat!
Leopards are nocturnal animals and extremely territorial. They are adaptive to their surroundings, which mean they can adjust their behavior to survive wherever they are. We are taught in schools that all wild animals live in forests, but leopards also live in sugarcane fields, in agriculture (farm) landscapes, tea estates and dry areas! But how can these predators live in farm fields as well as forests? Aren’t these completely different landscapes? Well, an agriculture landscape provides shelter and food in the form of sheep, goats, dogs, calves, and chickens. Wild prey like civets and mongoose as well as water are also available in plenty.
Leopards are very well adapted to agriculture landscapes and have made their home across many parts of India. In many places, this spotted feline often lives awfully close to human settlements. These landscapes also support other beautiful wild animals like jungle cats, hyenas, jackals, civets and rusty spotted cats.
People don’t know much about this secretive spotted cat or the reasons for their presence in human-dominated areas. Mostly, they are afraid of this feline. There are also bad interactions between people and the leopards, like attacks on people’s pets and farm animals and, very rarely, attacks on humans by leopards. People think removing the leopards from the landscape and releasing them back into the forests is the solution to these problems. However, the leopards always come back to their original territory, even if they are taken away. They have very strong home instincts, just like our house cats. Leopards know their territory very well as in they know where they will get food and water, and they know the timings of human activities. If we remove a resident leopard from a particular area, then the same territory will eventually take up by one or two other leopards. The territory will not be vacant for long. People’s fear and misconceptions towards this big cat are what creates human-wildlife interactions a challenge.
Working together with researchers, artists, the Forest Department, educational institutes and educators, a team of scientists including myself came together to share important information about this elusive spotted cat with students in rural landscapes. The outreach program is known as – Janata Waghoba – The Wise Big Cat). The information was based on leopard biology and behavior and included precautionary measures to avoid negative interactions between humans and leopards. The program hoped to minimize the fear towards and increase general understanding of human-leopard interactions.
During this program, I got the opportunity to interact with students from a small village called Konambe in Sinnar taluka, Nashik, Maharashtra. The village was situated at the base of a small hill and was surrounded by sugarcane and other crop fields. The hill was a grazing place for livestock to villagers of the same village. I was accompanied by the Sarpanch (village leader) and two frontline Forest Department staff members – the Forest Round officer and the Forest Beat Guard. The activity was conducted in the Primary Zila Parishad school, Konambe.
The primary school teachers were also a part of the activity. Students from Standard 1-4 were present. I asked the students, “Have you seen a leopard in your village?” One tiny shy boy raised his hand. He grabbed my attention. All the other kids were looking at him. Excited and curious, I asked him to tell us about his sighting – “where, how, when?” He started narrating the experience in a quiet voice. He said he had seen a leopard once about a month and a half ago. It was sleeping on a fallen tree. Along with his elder brother, he took their goats to the top of the hill to graze (pointing at the hill which can be seen from the school). “That is our usual spot to graze our animals.” he said, now visibly excited and more confident. “We were trudging along our usual path, eating berries. When we reached the top of the hill, we stopped in our tracks upon noticing the leopard. “Wagh, wagh, wagh!” we hissed in astonishment” ‘Wagh’ means ‘tiger’ in Marathi. In rural areas, both tigers and leopards are called ‘wagh’. Leopards are also sometimes called ’bibtya’.
“Suddenly, the leopard noticed us,” the boy continued. “After watching us for a few minutes, it ran away, disappearing into the trees. Once it vanished, we also ran down the hill.”
After he had finished narrating this fascinating story, I asked him if the leopard attacked them at all. (“त्याने तुम्हाला काही इजा किंवा त्रास दिला का?”)
He laughed and said no, in fact, the leopard had got spooked by them and ran away even faster. (आम्हाला बघून तोच इतका घाबरला की जोरात पळूनच गेला).
The students all burst into laughter at the incident. Hearing the tale, one of the senior teachers from the school said that there were frequent cases of attacks on livestock but until now, leopards have not attacked human beings. There have been many incidents in which leopards are seen on farms; in fact, villagers told us that a leopard had even visited the school premises late one evening.
I was surprised and amazed to see such acceptance from villagers young and old towards this big cat. This experience left me with much to think about!
Such stories and experiences from the ground should be highlighted. We humans tend to only pay attention to negative human wildlife interactions. This boy’s story is just one of many where people and leopards share spaces without harming each other. Youngsters across such landscapes are more well-versed with the reality of such encounters with animals than we are. We always think wild animals are dangerous, but in reality, they are quite scared of humans. Humans are their biggest predators. It is necessary to understand both animals as well as people. Leopards and many wild animals have adapted to the situation of living in places with human influences. It is now our turn to make our surroundings better to live in – for them as well as for us!
Words to Know:
Nocturnal = animals that are active during the night and sleep during the day
Territorial = animals that protect their homes against other animals in their species
About the Author:
Mrunal Ghosalkar works as an educator in rural landscapes of Maharashtra sharing information on human wildlife
interactions with people.