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

An Uncertain Future For Vultures


It can be difficult to feel sorry for a creature that lives by eating the dead. But vultures fill an important ecological niche, and removing them from the landscape can cause a cascade of changes with devastating consequences, as India has learned in recent years.

Vultures started disappearing from India during the 1990s. The cause, scientists later learned, was the painkiller, diclofenac. The drug is used to treat cattle in India (and elsewhere), but it’s toxic to vultures. When cattle die, the vultures eat the carcasses, get sick and also die. Vultures in India are disappearing faster than the dodo.

You might think that without the vultures to eat the carcasses of the dead, the bodies would just decay. But instead they’ve become a food source for rats and, worse, packs of feral dogs. Feral dogs are a growing problem in India, where they have attacked and killed children, and spread rabies and distemper, threatening a host of other species.

Now Africa could be facing the same problem, and hopes that vultures could be saved through the creation of protected areas have been dashed by a study in PLOS One that found that the birds roam farther than anyone suspected.

“We found that young vultures travel much further than we ever imagined to find food, sometimes moving more than 220 kilometers a day. Individuals moved through up to five countries over a period of 200 days, emphasizing the need for conservation collaboration among countries to protect this species,” study co-author Stephen Willis of Durham University in England said in a press release.

The reason vultures fly so far is that there’s just not enough food for them in the protected areas. Vultures prefer to eat animals that have died naturally, rather than compete with lions and other predators for their kills. The best place for a vulture to find a meal, then, is a pasture far from other carnivores. Sadly, though, the vultures don’t know that those pastures can contain some of the most deadly foods. And until people stop treating their cattle with the problem painkiller, the vulture populations will continue to decline.

Image Credit: Dr. Stephen Willis/Durham University