Study on human-leopard interaction brings out interesting facts

Updated: Jul 22, 2019, 09:44 IST | Ranjeet Jadhav

What is also interesting is the fact that these elusive cats are also seen as thinking beings, possessing qualities such as conscious thought, self and kinship

Study on human-leopard interaction brings out interesting facts
Leopard from a camera trap in Shongi.

A new study about the human-leopard interactions have thrown forward some interesting facts forward. While leopards are usually portrayed as dangerous or fearful in popular writing, people in Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh think of leopards as not mere instinct driven animals but as adaptive beings who are capable of responding to specific situations.

Biologist Dr Vidya Athreya also feels that the study has relevance to Warli tribals from Mumbai as these people have shared space with these animals historically, have their own ways of understanding these animals that come out of the experience of encounters. Furthermore, these animals are present in their stories and myths as well.

What is also interesting is the fact that these elusive cats are also seen as thinking beings, possessing qualities such as conscious thought, self and kinship that are usually attributed only to humans. This perspective was revealed in an ethnographic study conducted in Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh to understand the influence of intangible factors such as stories, beliefs and religion on human-leopard relationships.

Interviewers and volunteers. Pic/ Shweta Shivakumar
Interviewers and volunteers. Pic/ Shweta Shivakumar

It may be noted that people's perception of leopards is based on cultural narratives and personal experiences, and thus extends beyond the ecological and socio-economic factors that conservation studies normally emphasize on.

"In the district of Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh, India, humans and leopards have been sharing space since decades despite it being a rural landscape outside the realm of protected areas. Perhaps it is because of this long history of living alongside one another that the human-leopard relationship in the landscape is so complex, dynamic and multifaceted," says Dhee, first author of the study "The Leopard that Learnt from the Cat, and other narratives of carnivore-human coexistence in northern India." published in the British Ecological Society's journal People and Nature on 8th July, 2019.

The study was conducted by researchers from WCS India, Himachal Pradesh Forest Department and NINA, Norway, the authors being Dhee, Dr Vidya Athreya, John D. C. Linnell, Shweta Sivakumar, Sat Pal Dhiman.

During the study, the researchers used an ethnographic framework wherein the primary researcher spent a substantial amount of time involved in everyday activities such as farming, cooking and travelling in the landscape. Permanent village residents, migratory shepherds and forest department personnel were the main stakeholder groups interviewed in this study.

The primary interviewer, who is also the first author of this paper, spent 4 months between October 2016 and January 2017 in the district, interacting with local people whilst collecting leopard scat for a separate ecological study, concerning diet. Afterwards, between February and April 2017, semi-structured interviews were conducted with key stakeholders, using a list of deliberated questions as reference points.

According to the researcher and the paper that has been published, a total of 23 semi-structured interviews were conducted. Six interviewees were seasonal migrants: of these four were shepherds, who drive their sheep to Hamirpur for the winter from higher altitudes, and two were a horse-loggers (people who transport timber within wooded areas using horses) from the neighbouring state of Uttarakhand. 11 interviews were conducted with local villagers including two former village heads (sarpanch); one Hindu priest; and one person who is occasionally called upon by the Forest Department to kill 'man-eating' leopards. Four interviews with territorial forest guards of Hamirpur, and two interviews with higher officials in the Forest Department were also conducted. Of the 11 interviews conducted with local villagers, female participants were present in six interviews. One of the four interviews conducted with forest guards was with a female participant. As there was no noticeable difference between themes that emerged from male and female participants.

The qualitative thematic analysis of the interviews was conducted using an inductive framework i.e. instead of identifying themes prior to analysis, the themes that emerged from within the transcripts were identified, compiled and substantiated using extant literature.

The study revealed that participants' description of leopards and their behaviour arose out of the knowledge that was based on experience as well as being culturally informed. Participants shared several myths and stories featuring leopards, including a contemporary conspiracy theory about the release of "domesticated" leopards by the government into the surrounding landscape. Multiple participants strongly believed that the leopards that they presently see in their surroundings are not the wild leopards that they have been sharing the landscape with for decades and have learnt about through myths and stories. Instead, they believed that they are paltu (domesticated) leopards that the forest department has released to protect the forested areas from human intrusion.

Narratives such as the conspiracy theory also brought to light the human-human tensions between stakeholders and exemplified a way in which human-animal dynamics are affected by human-human conflicts. This study illustrates the significance of locally present narratives in moulding the relationship between humans and animals within shared landscapes, consequently underlining the possible shortcomings of looking at human-animal dynamics only through the narrow lenses of ecology or socio-economics.

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