Friday, November 28, 2014

GPS-based Study Uncovers Tactics Used by India's Leopards to Flourish in Human-Dominated Areas

One of the five leopards being fitted with a GPS collar.

A recent GPS-based study of India's leopards has examined the secret lives of these big cats and documented their tactics to thrive in areas dominated by people. This study was carried out in collaboration of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) India, scientists Morten Odden from Hedmark University College and John Linnell from the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, the forest departments of Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra, and the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation. Their discoveries were published in the journal PLOS ONE in an article titled "Adaptable Neighbors: Movement Patterns of GPS-Collared Leopards in Human-Dominated Landscapes in India." During the study, five leopards seen as "problem animals" were captured from human-dominated areas and fitted with radio collars. Of the five animals, two males were translocated 31 miles away while the three females were released near the location of the capture. The scientists closely observed the leopards' activities for up to a year and documented their behavior, including tactics to avoid direct encounters with people. The findings showed that the males moved 55 miles and 28 miles respectively from their release sites. According to Vidya Athreya from WCS India, this demonstrated the uselessness of translocating leopards as a management method. However, the animals employed strategies to avoid direct contact with people, despite reliance on their resources. First of all, the leopards mainly moved at night, which timed completely with low human activity. Recordings indicated that they spent more time closer to people's houses at night than during the day, which gave them access to livestock. The scientists found that the two male leopards inhabited home ranges of 26 miles and 40 miles respectively, including one in the peripheries of Mumbai. The three females, on the other hand, were found to live in areas with highest human densities but inhabited smallest home ranges that were 3-5.7 square miles. The home ranges of the three female leopards were found to be similar to those in productive protected areas with very satisfying prey density. This showed that the food sources, which in this was domestic livestock, supported the three females. Furthermore, two of the females even gave birth to cubs during the time of study which confirmed the females' residence. Although they were living close to people and relying on their resources, none of the five leopards were involved in human fatalities during their individual captures and releases. The scientists emphasized that presence of leopards in India's human-dominated landscapes need to be dealt with proactive alleviation measures. They further added that there is an obligation for more studies on wildlife ecology that share space with people, so that better understanding can help rethink leopard management policy.

The study conducted by this group of scientists has resulted in a conclusion leopards in human-occupied areas are not always regarded as "stray" or "problem" animals, but residents as well. This means that policy-makers should rethink India's management techniques in dealing with leopards. It would be useful if policy-makers and scientists specializing in studying leopards should form a joint collaboration in preventing fatal encounters between leopards and people. Efforts should be put into averting losses to people instead of reacting after the losses. One of the basic rules in avoiding a possible encounter with leopards as with any dangerous wild animals is to never venture outside at dusk or night. In addition, garbage and other rubbish should be properly managed in order to prevent stray dogs from coming into an area to feed off of scraps left behind by people. The dogs would draw the attention of leopards who see them as potential food source and when leopards move into an area(s) rife with garbage, people get caught in the crossfire. This is why it is extremely crucial that policy-makers and scientists should join forces, in order to improvise management tactics directed at dealing with leopards and preventing human-leopard conflict.

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