356 leopards deaths in 365 days — This shocking statistic, revealed in a study conducted by the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) on leopard casualties in 2011, has created a stir in the circles of wildlife lovers and biologists. Officials of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), the habitat for the dwindling leopard population in the city, are now planning a study to determine the leopard distribution in their precincts, and also to find out why more and more leopards are straying into densely populated human habitats, to prey on stray dogs, in preference to their usual fare of deer.
Leopards from SGNP have frequently been spotted in the city’s eastern suburbs, near the eastern flank of the park. Experts believe that the availability of stray dogs attracts the leopards to these human settlements. With the population of deer — the usual prey of leopards — dwindling, dogs are the next most easily available prey for leopards now. Biologists fear that a continuation of these trends could have an adverse impact on the health of the leopards, and also escalate human-leopard conflict.
Wildlife expert Krishna Tiwari said, “Of late, too many buildings and slums have cropped up on the western periphery of the national park and Ghodbunder Road, as a result of which there is less and less space for wildlife, including leopards. The leopards entering human settlements are in search of dogs, which are easy prey.”
Tiwari has predicted that as development spreads along the periphery of the national park, leopards will keep sniffing out newer routes or trails to venture into human habitats. In order to examine why leopards are trying to gain access to regions densely populated by humans, SGNP authorities have initiated the study from April 13, and plan to collect leopard scat for DNA analysis.
The camera-trap method is already in place within the park precincts to capture images of leopards, so as to shed light on their presence in and around the park and map areas of possible man-animal conflict. “As photographic data of the leopards are in, we are now planning to begin another process of scat collection of leopards,” said a forest official involved with the study.
Collection of scat will help the officials attain a better understanding of the leopard population in and around the national park. DNA analysis of the collection is expected to throw light on their preying habits. “The study will start from April 13. Three days will be devoted on the western side of the national park and two days to the parts of SGNP in the Thane region. We have started registering volunteers for the scat collection work,” added the official.
Biologist Vidya Athreya said, “Scat is collected for the purpose of DNA analysis, which will help us have an idea of the leopard population.” Asked if the consumption of dogs could have an adverse impact on leopards, Athreya said, “Veterinarians and biologists in other countries have been saying that there is high risk of disease transmission from dogs to leopards if the latter consume the former. We have not studied this in India, where leopards have always been preying on domestic animals. The transmission of disease like rabies cannot be ruled out. But research is important before we draw any conclusions.”
State of decline
According to the forest department’s wildlife division in Nagpur, 81 leopard deaths were reported in the state in 2011, compared to 56 in 2010 and 48 in 2009.
Did you know?
The Wildlife Protection Society of India report for 2011 shows 356 leopard deaths in 365 days and attributes 52 per cent of the fatalities to poaching. This is the highest in five years.
Year Leopard deaths in the country