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Leopards of India’s Silicon City

(Image courtesy of Sanjay Gubbi)

Post submitted by Sanjay Gubbi, Scientist Nature Conservation Foundation.

 

Bangalore, a southern Indian city, has become synonymous with information technology and is one of a few metropolis in the world that hosts large wild mammals such as elephants, leopards, sloth bears and even tigers within a distance of a few kilometers from the center of the city. Among them, two species make headlines, quite often – the elephant and the leopard.

Part of the city outskirts, where rural life continues to linger despite the contrasting glitzy city reports, livestock lifting by leopards are common. Occasionally, the residents of apartment complexes in the southern side of the city report leopard sightings. When such incidents are reported, the response is a demand to relocate (translocation) the leopards. In the past five years the forest department, due to various pressures, has captured six leopards from the city outskirts, relocating four of them to various other locations.

Concerned about the leopard conflict and captures, I started monitoring the presence of leopards and conflict incidences around the country’s IT capital. From time to time we camera-trapped the areas where there were requests from local residents who were afraid of leopards lurking in their area and the government.

Camera-trapping gives us wonderful insights into the lives of these spotted cats. Many times when we install these automatically triggered photo-documenting devices, leopards were captured walking past our camera traps. At times, the sequence of images was more interesting. At one location we had citizens walking past our camera traps on their evening walks.  A few hours later, young spotted cats walked past the same camera traps taking their own images with bright-lit garden lights as their backdrop. In some locations, young school children walked by displaying their playful performances for the cameras, and a few hours later the stealthy predator would imperceptibly appear as the human activities drew to a close.

(Image courtesy of Sanjay Gubbi)

A government institute that experimented on fodder seeds in northwestern part of the city invited us to document the presence of leopards on their campus as some security personnel reported sighting a large cat. The institute cultivated maize and other similar tall standing crops, and leopards revealed their presence in these fields but disappeared as soon as the crops were harvested. Tall standing crops, such as maize, perhaps acted as a good cover for the field.

The spatial distribution of the spotted cat showed us a trend. Leopards are found from the northwest to the southern side of the city in a semi-circular form following the presence of rocky outcrops or forest patches. The message seems to be clear in Bangalore. Leopards survive in areas where there is a mosaic of natural forests, rocky outcrops and sub-optimal habitats such as maize fields that provide temporary cover for the animal to move between natural habitats. They are certainly not living like bandicoots that hide in the midst of high-rise buildings inside drains and culverts during the day and venture out eking food at night. They are not living amidst a sea of humans or amidst residential and commercial buildings. I wouldn’t call these urban leopards. Natural habitats seem to be the key for the leopards’ survival.

(Image courtesy of Sanjay Gubbi)

However, I wonder how long these animals would survive on the borders of this ever-growing city. Human population in Bangalore grew by 47% during 2001 and 2011, increasing it from 6.5 to 9.6 million currently matching the population of New York metropolitan area. The size of the city has increased over 300% in the last 20 years. Many villages and forest patches around the city have now been merged into the city limits. Forest areas have primarily made way for industries, housing complexes, and other developmental activities.

As urban areas expand, the natural habitats of leopards shrink. The animal could possibly go extinct locally or survive if there would be continuity to other natural habitats. For instance, leopards will continue to exist in Bannerghatta National Park (100 square miles) that adjoins the southern side of Bangalore city, despite the land around Bannerghatta  becoming highly urbanized. The northern and western edges of the national park are already ensconced in a sea of development. So, the leopards that live inside Bannerghatta could venture into urbanized areas due to easy access of domestic food sources, including dogs. Not an ideal situation for the leopard or people. However, deforestation in Bannerghatta could result in a loss of leopards in this area.

(Image courtesy of Sanjay Gubbi)

Apart from developing scientific information and database of the leopards around the city, we reached out to the local population. We regularly carry out outreach activities to bring awareness about leopards and ways to respond to leopards sightings in the vicinity. The multitude of people we had to speak to made an interesting case study by itself. Retired professionals, security personnel, space research scientists, central security force personnel, students, construction workers, villagers, farmers the list goes on. Hence, our outreach activities had to be in the local language Kannada, the national language Hindi, and English, tailored to suit the diversity within the communities of the city.

The responses of the communities towards leopards are very varied. On the outskirts of Bangalore, leopards are found among two distinct kinds of communities. Educated professionals, who are not economically dependent on land or animal husbandry, who prefer to reside in areas that have a mix of natural leopard habitats and agricultural landscape. Secondly, the communities who reside in similar ecological landscapes but whose lifestyles are largely rural in nature, and continue to depend upon farming and livestock for livelihoods.

(Image courtesy of Sanjay Gubbi)

There seems to be better acceptability among people whose livelihoods does not depend on farming or livestock. However, anxiety about leopards was still present. For instance, a school campus is partially used by leopards that has natural forests in it and abuts a multiple use forest patch. The alternative school administration were happy to co-exist with their spotted cats but still wanted to take necessary steps that did not make them legally liable if something went wrong. In addition, they took all necessary precautions to minimize any untoward incidences. However, communities that were dependent on agriculture and livestock farming did not want leopards in their vicinity. If the wild cat didn’t pose a threat to livelihoods there seem to be better acceptability.

Bangalore is an excellent example for the changing ecological, social and economic landscapes of the country, demonstrating the altering fate of some of the wildlife species. Leopards are being compressed into ever-shrinking areas of wilderness. Around Bangalore, they have disappeared from areas where these large cats were reported as recently as in the past five years. We will perhaps see more of such scenarios in the country where leopards lose out to the expanding urbanization. At the outset, other cities near Bangalore such as Mysore, Tumkur, Chitradurga are all candidates where this scenario could repeat due to expanding urbanization and loss of leopard habitats.

(Image courtesy of Sanjay Gubbi)

Loss and conversion of leopards’ natural habitat seem to be an important driver for this spotted cat to move to sub-optimal habitats. A comprehensive plan where leopard habitats that occur adjoining to cities and towns need to be drawn for long-term leopard preservation in the country, which is one of the strongholds of these spotted feline in the world.

All images courtesy of Sanjay Gubbi. 

Comments

  1. Shubabrata Das
    Bangalore
    February 10, 6:37 am

    Why would someone need a camera to “rescue” a leopard?! And is there some irony in a man who went hammer and tongs at India’s leading leopard biologist getting mauled by a leopard himself? But this aside I do hope and pray Dr. Gubbi recovers quickly and completely.

  2. Indira
    February 9, 11:50 pm

    Funny how many people jump in to give false information! Gubbi was wearing sports shoes and cotton pants. He did not have tripod or camera with him, only binoculars. He was at spot because the forest department requested him to.

  3. Raj
    Bangalore
    February 9, 9:40 am

    It was not very smart for sanjay gubbi to dress in formal shoes and nylon office pants and take a tripod and binoculars to observe the VIbgyor school leopard. He literally escaped with his life. If the lower canines had made contact eith his jugular it would be all over. This is a lesson he will never forget,

  4. Venkata Thodima
    February 7, 8:26 pm

    Today Sanjay very luckily escaped from leopard attack in a Bangalore school. I hope he recover soon. Best!

  5. Sharada Ramadass
    Bangalore
    February 7, 9:38 am

    As a bangalorean, I have some across the articles on leopards coming in contact with the urban populace, more so with the growing city boundary. And many of those incidents have been mentioned in this article. I am interested to know if there is any current ongoing work to understand the leopard population and territory spread on the fringes of Bangalore, including the Kadugodi/ Whitefield area which has also has sightings.

  6. VV Kantharaj
    Neyveli TN
    January 28, 7:27 am

    Very interesting article. Unfortunately, this unseemly (but admittedly entertaining) spat in the comments has eclipsed the piece itself. I was amused at the vitriolic backlash the lady’s comment invited. Disagreement is okay, but a slightly more proportionate response would have perhaps been in order? She observed (rightly or wrongly) that some facts here were not supported by peer reviewed research, and got a scathing rebuttal questioning her scientific credentials!

  7. Sudheer K S
    Mysuru
    January 27, 3:07 am

    It is very interesting to see the response of Vidhya atreya to comments of Shankar. It seems vidya atreya has conveniently forgot to justify her studies on “Scientific lines” . As a Mysoreian I was very well aware of the incident of leopard death in the outskirts of town and the subsequent FB posts. I think it is high time to re look and test the “Theories” of influential wildlife conservation researchers and put their concepts to strict proof. After gubbi’s research and latest data that a tiger has more than 300SqKM as a home range, the theory of 10sqkm is ridiculous.

  8. Krishna
    bangalore
    January 25, 3:36 am

    Vidya, I’m not sure if I agree with all that Shankar says, but I do remember reading your comments on the Mysore leopard death. You did blame it on the radio collar. However, soon when the truth came out, there were no comments from your side. Not very scientific for a scientist.

  9. vidya athreya
    Pune
    January 24, 11:09 am

    Shankar, I am really sorry to see such a biased view of what I was trying to say. And you appear to have really gone into a lot of detail to pick out fiction out of the facts. The management guidelines were by the forest department for the use of RFO’s and we worked with the FD to issue those. I have not claimed at all that capture and release has stopped. We are, even today working with the forest department to reduce the pressure which even they want to reduce. These are complex socio political issues. Odden was the first author becuase he was an official collaboration as part of a CES NINA project of which the collaring was a part and he contributed more to the analysis and paper writing than I could having my PhD to finish (the collaring work was not part of my PhD thesis). In any case, it appears you are out to take my case and I have no idea who you are. But if you write your contact details here, woudl love to get in touch with you. Maybe a dialogue between us is required to reduce the percieved “conflict” from your side 🙂

  10. Shankar
    Mysuru
    January 13, 10:41 am

    This is in response to the comments made by Vidya Athreya in this post. It is interesting to see Vidya Athreya talking about ‘claims not supported by peer reviewed scientific data’. Vidya Athreya authored the guidelines issued by the Indian federal government regarding human-leopard conflict in April 2011. These guidelines have nationwide ramifications, however nothing in this guideline was based on any peer-reviewed scientific data. In 2007 Vidya Athreya had brought out another guidelines for Maharashtra state, which was again not based on any scientific peer-reviewed literature. In fact Vidya Athreya had not published even a single data driven, peer-reviewed scientific literature on leopards at this point of time.

    Infact the most acclaimed data from radio collaring of Vidya Athreya (which formed the basis of the federal government guidelines) was not published in peer-reviewed journals until November 2014 (four and half years after the guidelines were published). Interestingly, Dr.Morten Odden, as the first author, published this data (See Odden et al. 2014, PLOS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0112044). It is noteworthy to see that Vidya’s own data being published by someone else several years after the data was collected. In fact many journals wouldn’t even accept manuscripts that had data that was over five years old.

    Vidya’s claims about her work leading to halting of conflict, capture and translocation of leopards in Junnar, Maharashtra is also not based on any scientific evidence. Even to this day there have been human killings in Junnar area (http://article.wn.com/view/2015/04/18/Leopard_kills_6yrold_boy_in_Junnar/, http://thegoldensparrow.com/news/man-leopard-conflict-reaches-a-tipping-point-in-junnar/, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/another-leopard-attack-in-junnar/article7255767.ece (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GVGZadIlKk, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhEDlHjLEG0).

    Several leopards have been captured in this area even to this day and some ‘problem leopards’ are also being translocated (http://www.hsi.org.au/go/to/178/leopards.html#.VpYmULR4n7Y, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/pune/Leopard-centre-in-Junnar-set-for-major-revamp/articleshow/49005700.cms, http://www.punemirror.in/pune/cover-story/Manikdohs-leopard-rescue-centre-has-no-room-for-ninth-inmate/articleshow/47886368.cms, http://www.dnaindia.com/pune/report-manikdoh-leopard-rescue-centre-to-get-facelift-1817426).

    Vidya Athreya has won several awards for claiming to have stopped conflict and capture of leopards but all of it has no scientific basis. Not a single scientific literature shows the reduction in conflict or leopard captures and translocation.

    As far as I read nowhere in the blog it states the leopards needs “pristine” habitats as claimed by Vidya Athreya. It emphasizes that natural habitats are important for leopards. In fact even a National Geographic article written by experts comment on leopards living adjoining Mumbai “critically, all these populations could not survive without protected enclaves of natural habitat and prey in the human landscape; the Mumbai leopards would rapidly vanish without the park in the middle of the city, for example. Even though some cats persist in unexpected places, there is a limit to their ecological tolerance” (http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2015/12/24/secrets-of-the-worlds-38-species-of-wild-cats/)

    Though the claim of large densities of leopards in rural, semi-urban areas is true, the study clearly hides the fact that this study was conducted in sugarcane fields that were surrounded by leopards’ natural habitats. Simple search on Google Earth for Junnar or Akole, Maharashtra, India will show that the sugarcane fields, where 4 leopards/100 square kilometers are found are in fact surrounded by perfect mountainous leopard habitats. The presence of natural leopard habitats and the effect it can have on leopard numbers cannot be ignored.

    I have followed Vidya Athreya’s studies and her comments on various writings from other leopard researchers. There has never been a positive comment from Vidya Athreya about other people’s works. All claims made by Vidya Athreya are scientific (even if they are not) and all work done by everyone else is crap and unscientific. However, it is interesting to see a facebook post made by Vidya Athreya regarding the death of a leopard near Mysore, Karnataka, India on 13th September 2014. Here Vidya Athreya ridiculed that the leopard died on a tree ‘as it hung itself on a tree by its back legs’. It was clear that Vidya Athreya was indicating that the radio collar on the leopard was the cause of the death. Later, the necropsy report by Animal Disease Diagnostic and Information Centre Laboratory concluded that the leopard had died due to Zinc phosphide poison. It clearly shows how unscientific is Vidya Athreya’s comments are on other researchers.

    It is high time that these “celebrity” big cat researchers should put aside their egos and relent to the fact that this country provides both legal and constitutional rights for other people to work on wildlife. The autocratic and arrogant attitudes of these researchers should be curbed and the world is already realizing the ulterior motives of these ‘me alone researchers’. The scientific and conservation world should come together to condemn this autocratic, arrogant attitudes of these few individuals who bring disrepute to the field of wildlife science.

  11. vidya athreya
    January 6, 5:43 am

    This article makes claims that are not supported by peer reviewed scientific data: such as “Sub-optimal habitats such as maize fields that provide temporary cover for the animal to move between natural habitats” without defining what is optimal or natural for leopard populations to thrive. Large, reproducing leopard populations now are occur at densities as high as 4 or more per 100 sq.km  in many rural and semi-urban areas across India, as mentioned in a well-researched popular article in National Geographic Magazine itself in December.

    What are “natural habitats” for a cougar (using urban landscapes in LA) or a bear (denning under houses) or a wolf (denning in an agricultural landscape in Europe) or a coyote (using urban landscapes in the US) or the leopard? This is only reinforcing the age old notion of “pristine wild landscapes” while we have predators which show that they are extremely adaptable and if they were not, they would go extinct! Why is it that only humans are allowed to be adaptable and not anything else? 🙂

    The definition of a urban leopard is not one who lives in a high rise or in a drain and a look at Gehrts book would do one good as it defines and talks about the ecology of urban carnivores the world over.

    The article talks about the different ways in which different people view the leopards and this is a well known fact among social scientist who study these issues. But the fact that urban people are more accepting could also be because there have been no human attacks on urban people while rural people have been attacked by leopards in Karnataka which is well picked up in the news. And again, all these situations are constantly changing – which implies different people can change the way they view these carnivores as well…

    This blog reinforces the false notion that leopards and similarly adaptable carnivores can thrive only in “pristine” habitats and misleads people who might read it while there is a huge knowledge of literature out there on urban carnivores, relationships between people and carnivores and adaptability of many large predator species.

  12. Ashish jain
    Bangalore
    January 5, 11:55 am

    Analysis is done in a systematic way. New methods and ways to make bangalore safe balancing with the population of leopards are a must.