Shimla: It’s a muggy day for September in Shimla and somewhere in the woods ahead of Vidya Athreya and Sandeep Rattan is a leopard, its presence confirmed by the double-pulse beep signal on the hand-held tracking device.

And not just any leopard (or leopardess, to be precise). This is Charlotte, an adult leopardess who was radio-collared and released last September. Her behaviour, it was thought at the time, would provide valuable information on human-animal conflict. Never before has a leopard, an animal that is increasingly being found in urban and suburban areas, been studied from this perspective in Himachal Pradesh.

Athreya, a conservation biologist, has been studying leopards in Maharashtra—a state where human-leopard conflicts are becoming increasingly common—and Rattan is a veterinary surgeon based in Shimla. They are looking for Charlotte’s radio collar in a leech-infested neck of the woods outside Shimla. The collar, according to its makers, the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA), should have fallen off in 52 weeks. Once recovered, it will be sent to NINA, where it will be decoded for detailed temperature and activity data. It is already clear from the tracking data that Charlotte has survived, coexisting with humans in a 25 sq. km area, across the local administrative blocks (or panchayats) of Dummi, Chedi and Bhont.

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Charlotte’s story is an important one—not just for her, but for all leopards. Between January and September, as many as 269 leopard deaths have been reported across the country, mainly as a result of the rising human-animal conflict, according to the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

Leopards are found all over India, on the fringes of villages and human habitations, preying off domestic livestock and dogs. This isn’t a new phenomenon. The leopard is “often found on the outskirts of villages, carrying away village dogs and prefers scrubby jungles to dense forests", says a note in the Nashik Gazetteer dated 1883.

Athreya says that in Maharashtra, leopards and people share “croplands".

“Once I asked a farmer watering his crop, if he had seen a leopard nearby. I knew a collared male was sitting somewhere amid the sugar cane field not more than 20 metres away. The farmer nonchalantly replied someone had seen one around a few days ago. We went ahead without telling him, or the women plucking tomatoes in the adjoining field, of the presence of the spotted cat," she says.

Tracking behaviour: A file photo of Charlotte, an adult leopardess, being radio-collared by Vidya Athreya (left) and Sandeep Rattan in Shimla. Photo Coutesy: Vidya Athreya
Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

“In my study area, I have around five adult leopards and five adult hyaenas in 100 sq. km. Even with 10 large carnivores in 100 sq. km, human attacks are extremely rare. No deaths yet, just a couple of accidental attacks. In fact, in my area, each year more people are bitten by rabid dogs," says Athreya.

Leopards have always been around people. In scrubland and woodlands, man and animal use the same paths, especially at night. And goats and pet dogs have always constituted part of the diet of leopards. “I would suggest that the presence of leopards near human habitation cannot be ruled out even during the day," says Rattan. “This is only possible because of the stealthy nature of these elusive animals synergized by exclusive camouflaging abilities."

Yet, he adds, there have been no deaths in and around Shimla from leopard attacks.

One reason for that could be human behaviour.

At Powabo, a hamlet where Charlotte was captured last year (the radio collar was then fitted on her, and she was released) after she went searching for a dog inside a house, most of the older generation appear comfortable with the idea of a leopard around their village. The young are different. Leopards and hyaenas, they believe, belong in zoos and national parks. There is talk of trap cages.

At a recent conference, Herbert Raffaele of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, noted that India has been able to conserve most of its big fauna only because of a rich socio-cultural value system that emphasizes tolerance towards all species.

Large tracts of rural India are home to a substantial population of leopards, hyaenas, jackals, wolves, jungle cats, rusty-spotted cats and foxes, all living off domestic animals and rodents. In central and western India, forest dwellers worship a large cat deity known as Waghoba. The value system itself, however, is under attack from urban values and sensitivites. By 2050, 55% of India’s population will be living in urban areas, amounting to 900 million people, further squeezing the space for free-ranging carnivores.

The popular solution, when it comes to leopards, is relocation, but that doesn’t work. Recent research on leopards in human-dominated landscapes shows that capture-and-translocation is an ineffective way of dealing with free-ranging large carnivores. Leopards exhibit amazing homing instincts and many animals will traverse through densely populated landscapes to reach home. As a result, translocation often results in merely shifting the conflict to unaffected areas. Worse, the space vacated by a translocated animal is likely to be soon taken up by another wild leopard.

“One leopard, named Ajoba, around five years old, walked 120km from the Malshej Ghats to Mumbai, crossing a railway line and the Mumbai-Agra highway and taking 25 days to make this long journey. He also went into the populated Vasai industrial estate—we knew this because of his GPS (global positioning system) collar—but no attacks were reported," says Athreya.

Leopards pose a unique challenge: contemporary science tells us that carnivores do not consider humans food, but this does not mean the animals are welcome in villages, leave alone towns and cities.

Experts say the ideal solution is to maintain a respectful distance, keeping out of the animal’s way. Most attacks, they say, occur in self-defence and panic when the animal is cornered. Leopards are as scared of humans as humans are of them, so the first thing a leopard does when it realizes that people are around is to hide and flee. The best way to deal with a chance encounter with a leopard is to allow the animal a little space and time. Experts also advocate that people traversing woodland and scrubland paths at night sing or talk, even if only to themselves. “Stray dogs are an open invitation to the leopard. Dogs, goats and other domestic stock must be driven into secure enclosures well before nightfall. Ideally, enclosures must be some distance from homes, as leopards will venture close and will stop visiting only when they realize no food is available," says Athreya.

A forest official in Himachal takes heart from Charlotte’s story.

“The results of tracking over the last year show how leopards can live in proximity to humans without conflict. We would like to continue more such studies across other parts of Himachal Pradesh and educate the local people that they can live with leopards in a kind of symbiotic relationship," says Ashwanii Gulaati, principal chief conservator of forests and chief wildlife warden of Himachal Pradesh.

Eventually, Charlotte’s collar doesn’t fall. Forget the collar, they haven’t even seen Charlotte, but they know from the tracking device that she is alive (the beep changes when the animal dies) and that the collar is still on her (the beep changes once the collar falls off, too). Athreya and Rattan give up their concerted search and decide that the latter will conduct a weekly one instead