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  • Writer's pictureRakesh Shukla

Rosetted Ghosts on the Prowl



It was a very fortuitous encounter on a late November afternoon at Kanha. The slanting rays of the setting sun were falling on the ground through the lush leafy vegetation. I had seen the predator from a distance amid langur’s guttural calls, and stopped the vehicle to watch through the field glasses the finer nuances of the concluding part of its hunt. The sturdy leopard was dragging the chital across the forest road, and became wary for a moment to see the approaching vehicle, and then went on to lug the animal to the other side of the road. It unclasped the grip on the quarry’s neck and sat on its haunches for a while. It was restless, panting, and furtively looking at the vehicle. What a pair of shrewd piercing eyes in that muscular head! The leopard stood again, jerked its head twice while moving the long and slender balancing tail up and sideways, and looked up at the trees near him. The leopard then grabbed the chital again by the neck and started moving towards the nearby tree. And with the chital’s throat in the powerful jaws and the body between its four legs, the beast started to climb straight up swiftly. It stopped only once for a moment to adjust its bearings with this load of around 50 kg., and reached a safe height to hoist the body into a forked branch. The ghost and its food were now in a safe haven, well out of the reach of its wild rivals and camp-followers!


by Vijayarajan Muthu

 

Threats and status 

The leopard (Panthera pardus) in India is also commonly known as the “panther”, which is a misnomer. This is the smallest species of the genus Panthera and generally carries this long-standing misname because of the solid black melanistic colour variant of the leopard, known as the black panther, which is no different species but actually a leopard in disguise! While as per the biological systematics, any member of the Panthera genus bearing solid black patterns can be called a panther, the word generally apply only to the leopard, and the jaguar occurring in some parts of the US, Mexico and south America.

 

There are 9 subspecies of the leopard in the world, and even now India supports the largest population of the subspecies, but outside Africa. A leopard’s death in the country makes no headlines, and wildlifers say that we lose around 6 leopards for every single tiger death. We need not be reminded that the species is already under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, supposed to be enjoying serious protection in this category. A gradual decrease in the world population over the years has also resulted in the leopard moving up from the “near threatened” to the “vulnerable” category of the IUCN Red Data List. As per a report released by a prestigious NGO, India lost 591 leopards and 110 tigers in the 2019 calendar year. Naturally, such casualness and indifference towards the species have never prompted us to seriously prioritize to ascertain reliable status of leopards in the country. In this bleak scenario, the Wildlife Institute of India released detailed results of leopard population in India.


by Neeraj Bantia

 

These results are the outcome of leopard-specific data collection, including photo-captures, conducted in 2018 during the All India Tiger Estimation. While in this protocol forested areas of tiger bearing states were sampled for leopards, non-forested areas, very high elevations, arid regions and most of the north-east areas had to be left out. Needless to add, a large leopard occurring area in the country remained unsampled owing to logistical constraints, leading to an estimate of minimum leopard population in the country. In this exercise a total of 51,337 images of leopards were retrieved from camera-traps. Data compilation and individual identification of leopards was done through the Hotspotter and ExtractCompare programmes. Besides, leopard abundance was estimated by the Spatially Explicit Capture Recapture from camera trap data. A total of 5,240 adult leopards were photo-captured in the exercise, and the overall leopard population in surveyed area of the country was estimated at 12,852. The results also suggest that of the total 10,602 surveyed grids, leopard presence was recorded in 3,475 of them. Madhya Pradesh topped the tally with 3,421leopards, followed by Karnataka with 1,783, and Maharashtra with 1,690 leopards. The total estimated figure may sound impressive in isolation, but when compared against the scope and potential of Indian habitats, leopard conservation seriously needs to be strengthened under a specific policy.


by Manju Hegde

 

Shrewd survivor 

Nature has made this amazing animal very adaptable as far as its food habits and habitats are concerned. Its relative small size and competition with larger carnivores have compensated it with a wide range of choice of prey species and resultant ubiquity in forested and inhabited areas in the country for selection of diverse prey species. Highly agile, elusive, solitary, and stealthy, they have small rounder rosettes, rose shaped patterns, all over the body against a general yellow body coat colour. The coat colour and rosettes may have slight changes in different environmental conditions across its distribution range throughout the world. Though it hardly ever gains more than half the weight of a full-grown tiger, the beast is powerful and a skilled and versatile hunter. In spite of the small size, the leopard can tackle medium-sized prey with its strong and massive skull and very powerful jaw muscles. They can operate in different ecological settings and change hunting techniques to make the most of their efforts. An opportunistic predator, nature has enabled it to choose diets from an extensive menu for its survival. Besides the usual small to medium-sized common wild and domestic mammals, the leopard can also go for monkeys, hares, rodents, birds, eggs, and porcupines etc. It is a quick and quiet feeder, avoiding risk of any other competitor’s attention to its feeding. An expert tree climber, the animal is known to carry its prey up into a treeto a safe height and lay it on a forked branch for devouring at leisure. Trees are also safe haunts for them to keep their troublesome co-predators like tigers, wild dogs, and hyenas at bay. Powerful forelimbs, strong muscles of the head, neck and scapula, or shoulder bones, make these climbs so amazingly effortless for this Spiderman of the animal world! Stocky legs and the long, slender tail, and powerful claws help the beast negotiate thin and slippery branches without losing balance. Twice in my forest service span I was mesmerized to watch an arboreal male-female pair perched high in a tree, taking stock of activity below. On another occasion, I also saw a small sounder of wild pigs fiercely chasing and treeing a leopard. The sounder, however, crossed the tree almost nonchalantly and the leopard climbed down as fast as it climbed up and vanished in the forest.


by Neeraj Bantia

 

In a wildlife ecosystem, there exists a natural segregation amongst wild animal species on the basis of ecological niche partitioning that include food habits, habitat separation and specific ecological requirements. Nature has helped these species evolve different feeding strategies to reduce interspecific competitions. Body size and metabolic rates of different species also have to play an important role in this. The distribution of carnivores, including the tiger-the main predator, and the leopard and the wild dog-the co-predators, is also regulated by the presence and movements of ungulate species.  Tigers and leopards can coexist so long as the prey base is good. Depletion of wild prey base, however, is more likely to affect tigers than leopards that may havesmaller and more or less stable home ranges close to human habitations. In spite of the availability of good prey base in a protected area, tigers are also known to enter villages and kill livestock. Speaking generally, leopards operate in such a ghostly mannerin an inhabited area that there is often less chance of public outcry in case of an animal kill. Tigers, however, make bold entries and may remain with the kill for hours making life difficult for villagers. There seems to be no competition between the tiger and leopard, and they follow the tactics of mutual avoidance.  Leopards are, however, also known to operate close to the movements of tigers. The kills of leopards are also sometimes usurped by tigers.


by WII, Dehradun


While leopards also avoid humans, an old, sick or injured animal can attack and even kill humans to sustain itself. Though grossly under-assessed because of their small size, they can also determinedly go for these kills if natural prey base is depleted. The famous Panar leopard in the Kumaon region killed over 400 humans before being finally dispatched by Jim Corbett, the famous hunter-turned-conservationist in 1910. He also observed in his probably the best book “The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag” that a man-eating leopard is more problematic and dangerous than a man-eating tiger. The Rudraprayag man-eater, operating over an area of around 1300 sq.km. ,terrorizing around 50,000 villagers, was responsible for killing a large number of humans (officially only 125) between 1918 and 1926. This was a most publicized animal at that time even ininternational press. Leopards are inherently shrewd, excellently camouflaging, deceptive, and scheming that make them what they are, ghost like creatures.

 

Conservation concerns


by Nikhil Trivedi


While studies strongly suggest that India has already lost around 75-90 percent of its leopard population during the past 120-200 years, its omnipresence, specially outside forested areas, and our fixation on tigers, have blissfully kept us distracted from the decreasing population of leopards in the country. We are complacent about the abundance of its population. While we also need to appreciate this figure amid such biotic pressure in the country, we find ourselves at a loss to understand annual death-tallies of this ignored cat. The leopard is a prolific breeder, but poaching, habitat loss, and prey depletion are the usual threats to its survival. While, as usual, its conservation status in and around good protected areas is satisfactory because of the management’s professionalism, including anti-poaching strategies, and conclusive investigations of poaching cases,  in the rest of areas awfully much is left to be desired. Psychologically, just because this cat is not a tiger, anti-poaching strategies are sub-standard, and crime investigations after the seizure of body parts and poaching tools such as traps, snares, poison etc. are not carried out professionally, and remain logically unconcluded.  The typical mindset of the forest staff of managed forests not working in a protected area, and as having nothing to do with wildlife is a serious problem. No doubt, they have their own preoccupations of their duties and responsibilities of forest conservation. Therefore, the staff of surrounding good protected areas needs to be trained periodically in leopard monitoring using field instruments. They should also be trained to understand intricacies of poaching investigations and make strong cases for conviction. Quick convictions are a very effective deterrent in conservation. We need a definitive leopard conservation policy, and presently conservation measures are being taken under the umbrella species concept – tiger conservation.  We need to emphasize on the significance of leopard conservation by undertaking a wide range of leopard conservation awareness programmes, especially in the villages. Like we do for tigers, these programmes may include commemorating the “leopard day” or the “leopard week”, taking ecodevelopment/ forest protection committees’ members and students on wildlife excursions in adjoining protected areas, organizing short nature camps for basic conservation education. Speaking generally, we are mostly losing leopards to poaching and man-animal interface, as a result of the leopard’s tendency to go for dogs and small cattle, in these areas. Relying on the axiom “conservation through cooperation” we need to involve local communities directly and undertake, on experimental basis, eco-sociological researches in a few areas to improve human-leopard coexistence through leopard monitoring and adaptive management schemes. We can also plan to take up pilot projects in target areas to improve habitat and develop prey base for leopards to address villagers’ concerns. Villagers also need to be paid compensation quickly and more than adequately specially for the loss of their pets and small livestock. Attractive packages should be offered for voluntary relocation, and villagers made beneficiaries in ecotourism activities wherever possible. Permissions for linear infrastructure passing through potential areas need to be judiciously accorded, but first considering alternatives. These developmental works are also cause of a number of accidental deaths of leopards.

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Srinivasa Rao
Srinivasa Rao
Mar 03

Truely a ghost; An insight from all my jungle sojourns is that sighting a leopard is rarer than sighting a tiger, even though the former easily outnumber the latter. Catching them in action is rarer still. You are so fortunate.

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