Got Deer In The Backyard? If You Were In India, You Might Have Leopards


Here in the U.S., we complain about deer and bunnies munching on our gardens. In some places, people have to worry about more dangerous carnivores like coyotes, wolves, or bears. Where people and nature meet, conflict is often the rule.

In India, they’ve got animals such as leopards and hyenas to worry about. But where one might expect conflict, that isn’t a given, as demonstrated in a study published last month in PLOS One.

The study comes from a group of researchers led by the Wildlife Conservation Society-India who used camera traps to track leopards (Panthera pardus) and striped hyenas (Hyaena hyaena) in western Maharashtra (central India), an area that is rural and where most of the people are farmers growing sugar cane, millet, and vegetables. The cameras captured a number of leopards and hyenas over a one-month period in late 2008, and using those pictures, the researchers were able to calculate that there were about six leopards and five hyenas per 100 square kilometers. (For comparison, there were 100 wolves in Yellowstone National Park in 2011, or about 1.11 wolves per 100 square kilometers.)

Normally leopards in India live off of prey like cheetal and langur, but these smallish animals aren’t found much in this part of the country. Instead, the big cats are surviving on a diet of domestic dog and livestock, the researchers say.

In some places in India, leopards have been found preying on humans, but in western Maharashtra, there have been no fatal conflicts. This is particularly notable because the human population density there is very high — 300 people per square kilometer — and the cats were photographed on human trails, so they are definitely coming near the human population.

Why would there be little conflict?

“The crux of the issue to me is one of tolerance,” study lead author Vidya Athreya writes on the Project Waghoba website. “In many talks in cities, I often ask the public which of them would let be a leopard that is coming to their lane only to get dogs and has never harmed people. I do not think a single hand has ever been raised. However in rural India, tolerating other forms of life is a part of their lifestyle, be it domestic animals or wild.”

But beyond a lesson in tolerance, by showing that what might be considered dangerous wildlife can live near people without harming them, this study calls into question the perceived necessity of moving wildlife like leopards. Leopards that are found near human populations are now often treated as strays and moved to protected areas, the researchers say. But these translocated cats have attacked people near the sites where they are released. If they are less deadly when left in place, perhaps they should be left alone.

But I do wonder how well the local people deal with the loss of their dogs and, especially, their livestock, which is an issue that’s not addressed by the researchers. I imagine that for some poor farmers, losing even one animal can be a devastating financial loss. Any program to protect carnivores really needs to have some sort of scheme to insure people against livestock losses to give the humans less of a reason to kill these wonderful creatures.

Image (camera trap photo of a leopard from the study) credit: Project Waghoba