Editor's Note: This article has been republished in the light of 7 February leopard attack in a school in Bengaluru. Sanjay Gubbi who took photographs for Firstpost for the following article was grievously injured in Sunday's attacks.
Bengaluru is known for many things, good and bad: pubs, great weather, awful traffic, even more awful roads, corrupt civic officials, you name it. But strangest of all, it’s becoming famous for the wild animals that prowl the city’s suburbs.
Two years ago, a herd of 15 elephants went on a rampage near Sarjapura Road (watch video here), in the city’s south-east sector. Authorities were forced to block roads and shut down the many schools in the area. Before that, elephants invaded the campus of an engineering college on Mysore Road. Students ran helter-skelter to escape, but luckily no one was hurt.
While elephants have visited the city for several years, a more recent phenomenon is the sight of leopards prowling the roads. Last year, speeding vehicles ran over and killed two leopards on the NICE Road that connects Bengaluru’s IT hub, Electronic City, with Peenya, the city’s manufacturing hub. A signboard urging motorists to look out for road-crossing leopards, put up by the Karnataka Forest Department, is largely ignored as vehicles zoom by at top speed.
The problem was highlighted earlier this week by wildlife biologist and conservationist Sanjay Gubbi, of the Nature Conservation Foundation. In a report posted on the National Geographic website, Gubbi points out that Bengaluru 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, says Gubbi, two species make headlines, quite often – the elephant and the leopard.
Based on camera traps and other methods, Gubbi estimates there are around 15 to 20 leopards within a radius of 20 kilometers from the Vidhana Soudha, which is considered the centre of Bengaluru. Gubbi, in collaboration with the Forest Department, headed a project that tracked six radio-collared leopards. The project studied leopard ecology, behavior, population dynamics, and attempted to better understand man-leopard conflict.
Across India, the status of the big cat varies from Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List with some subspecies classified as Critically Endangered. While most of India’s leopards live in protected areas and reserved forests, some also live in overlapping human habitats. Bengaluru is an example where the rapid and unplanned growth of the city has expanded to touch, and even intrude into traditional wildlife habitat.
Gubbi says, “Negative interactions happen when people and livestock go into the leopard’s natural habitat (forests, rocky outcrops) or when leopards come into human-dominated areas.” The leopards prey on livestock, which are easy to kill, and this brings them into harm’s way from humans who will try to kill them. In rare circumstances, leopards have attacked and killed humans.
But it’s not that humans are in danger of being killed by leopards; the opposite is true. Vehicular collisions are a major cause of leopard deaths. In Bengaluru alone, four leopards were run over and killed by speeding vehicles over the past four years. Across Karnataka state, around 25 leopards were run over in the same period. Gubbi says,in India, the challenge comes primarily from the conversion of existing small roads with low-volume traffic into high-speed highways. The situation is exacerbated due to therapid rise in the number of motor vehicles.
Apart from being run over, leopards frequently get trapped in places they can’t escape from. In Bengaluru, six leopards, mostly trapped in wells or homes, were captured and translocated, one of them to a zoo. The reason that leopards stay on in areas where humans live is that they have find it easy to kill domestic animals like dogs, goats, and cattle. A hungry leopard will also hunt cats and rats.
Gubbi’s research into leopards involves setting up camera traps to track leopard movements. He found that leopards moved along the same paths used by elderly couplesgoing for evening walks and children going to school. Even though, the movements of human beings and animals were separated by a few hours, it clearly shows how much overlap there is among human beings and wild animals.Leopards are shy and will go to great lengths to avoid human beings, but the danger of a tragedy cannot be ruled out.
Is there a solution? Gubbi says, “It's a contentious question and truly there is no straight forward answer to this. The forest department tries to address this problem in the way they understand the problem and solutions. At the same time, wildlife science hasn't really given a practical, long-term, scalable solution to address human-wildlife conflict.” Besides, the forest department is plagued by other problems such as shortage of personnel and financial resources.
Gubbi says that the loss and conversion of the leopards’ natural habitat seems to be an important driver for this spotted cat to come into conflict with humans. A comprehensive plan, where leopard habitats that occur adjoining to cities and towns, needs to be drawn up for long-term leopard preservation in the country.
Watch how this leopard prowled neighbourhoods in Bengaluru in 2014