A new study debunks most believed theories of man-animal conflict in landscapes shared by carnivores and men, changes the conservation narrative.
Believe it or not, but 57 % of leopards, 64 % of Indian wolves and 75 % of striped hyenas share space with people in western Maharashtra. And there is complete natural co-existence of these large carnivores with humans in landscapes, predominantly occupied by man and does not come under protected areas or forested regions.
A study conducted by scientists of Wildlife Conservation Society-India, Foundation for Ecological Research and Learning, University of Florida, Centre for Wildlife Studies and Maharashtra state forest department elaborates on the resilience of these carnivores in human use landscapes in India, which they also conclude can be a model to many other countries and conservationists to consider.
Iravatee Majgaonkar, lead researcher from Wildlife Conservation Society-India, says the study was considered from a number of other studies on semi-arid landscapes and wildlife that the Pune division of the Maharashtra forest department was undertaking a few years ago. “We already knew that some parts of human inhabited areas are also being shared by leopards, wolves and striped hyenas. Which means they are occupying areas other than protected areas. Also, conservation is believed to be an event inside the boundaries of classified areas like nature parks, sanctuaries or protected areas. This is not a new phenomenon but as conservationists, we now recognise the potential of human dominated landscape as conservation habitats where people and predators co-adapt and co-exist. The existing administrative model of separating humans and wild animals is perhaps the reason why people fail to handle man-animal conflicts outside protected areas and are ill-equipped,” she says.
The researchers also believe India has a number of communities co-existing with wild animals. “Elephants are most commonly found living with humans in this country. In some parts of north Bengal, the communities call these pachyderms Maha Kaal Baba, worship them and even offer them a part of the first produce of the season. Large mammals need a lot of food and space to move around and we believe that is one reason they are sharing land with humans,” Iravatee added.
The study conducted in semi-arid regions included seven districts in Western Maharashtra–Nashik, Ahmednagar, Pune, Satara, Sangli, Solapur and Kolhapur covering 89,853 sq km. These were completely dry until some decades ago. But now they are modified and fully irrigated. This has led to natural resources like food, water and shelter that these species need. As per the census 2011, the district level human population density in this study area is 266.48 to 602.63 people per sq km. The region also has 11 protected areas as per the forest department covering 2,401.4 sq km which is only 2.6 % of the area.
Although research discusses and admits that there is not much understanding of carnivore-human behaviour, scientists claim that these three species are adaptable. Iravatee explains: “There are instances of issues that get reported and the issues are mostly related to man-animal conflicts. Daily instances of living around carnivores does not get reported much. People feel that if there is a leopard entering a farm, a conflict is bound to occur. But many examples of humans and animals living together without damaging each other’s property or lives exist. They don’t understand the physical boundary of protected areas and go for food, water and shelter that is easily available in these human occupied landscapes (which is also the reason the study calls leopards, wolves and hyenas adaptable)…even surviving and giving birth. Our study finds that 90 % of the range of three species are in agricultural landscapes. Of course, that may not be true for tigers or other large carnivores and not yet known.”
The team conducted 1,626 interviews in 305 sites (out of which interviews were obtained from 295 sites where carnivores are mostly seen) and respondents had to identify any of the three species seen. After doing the math, they created matrices from 289 sites for leopards, 279 for wolves and 286 for striped hyenas. The presence of leopards was recorded in 150 of those sites, while wolves were present in 161, and hyenas appeared in 179 sites where they are native occupants.
Calculating the probability of occupancy, the researchers estimate that out of 295 sites sampled, wolves have the highest probability of occupancy in the 154 sites sampled (spread over 72,000 sq km)–while leopards have higher occupancy probabilities in 210 sites (44,000 sq km), and 157 sites (59,000 sqm km) have higher occupancy probabilities for hyenas. The research also stresses that the proposed National Forest Policy will bear a direct impact and may see a growth in the trend of carnivores sharing land with humans in many parts of the country.
The study appeared in the recent issue of the Conservation Science and Practice, an international journal and was primarily supported by Rufford Small Grant Foundation and the Maharashtra forest department. The co-authors include Sunil Limaye, principal chief conservator of forest, Nagpur.