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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.