It was in 1992 that Vidya Athreya first saw a leopard in the wild. The wildlife biologist was sitting on a large rock and watching the evening sun go down. Suddenly, she saw the big cat coming up the rock from the opposite side. The sun was glistening on its back and the animal looked breathtakingly beautiful, recalls Vidya. She was mesmerised by its majesty. Looking at the big cat in the wild, something in her stirred, and she decided to involve herself in keeping the animal safe. Since that first sighting in Annamalai Hills, she has emerged as a strong voice to reduce human-animal conflict in the shared spaces in India.
Athreya concentrated on working with leopards in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), an 87 sq km protected forest headquartered in Borivali, a northern suburb of Mumbai. This urban forest along with the Aarey forest are home to a sizeable population of leopards living in the wild. There have been numerous leopard attacks on settlements in the past, but since Vidya and others set in motion sustained awareness campaigns on the human-leopard conflict, mindsets are changing.
To enable this, Vidya and others are part of the Mumbaikars for SGNP Initiative, a group set up to reduce the human-leopard conflict. She is an important voice for this initiative that also addresses the issues faced by settlements and leopards in the Aarey forest, located some distance away from SGNP. In 2011, Vidya and her team, in coordination with the forest officials, started educating the citizens living within the forest, on its periphery or some distance away on the habitats of leopards, about the pattern of attacks and how both man and animal could live in harmony within the shared spaces. This has created a lot of impact on changing the mindset of the people.
“The awareness campaigns have helped those living inside as well as the forest officials. Since 2015, there has been a reduction in leopard attacks as the forest officials have stopped catching and releasing them. The people too are no longer very alarmed at leopard sightings,” she says.
Vidya has travelled across Maharashtra to numerous areas that have seen human-leopard conflicts. Akole in Sangamner was one such area that gave her a deeper understanding of the problem. “India has this rich cultural relationship with wildlife, particularly the tribal communities. These people introduce their younger generations to wildlife through stories that involve their ancestors. It is easily understood by the children and an instant bond of love and respect is born for wildlife,” Athreya tells Outlook. The Warli tribal community, who live in Mumbai and neighbouring Thane, know of leopards from their ancestors who introduce the animal in a story format. “The Warlis worship the tiger and call it Waghoba. They even build temples dedicated to Waghoba,” she says.
Leopard attacks peaked in recent years due to the policy adopted by the forest department of catching and releasing them at different places in the wild. According to Vidya, the leopards could have been cubs separated from the mother or an adult separated from a leap (group of leopards). She strongly believes that releasing them anywhere is not the solution to the human-leopard conflict. “The forest department officials are very important to any work we must do on the human-leopard conflict. The attacks happen close to the release sites. Therefore, all the stakeholders must be taken into confidence when working on a solution to the conflict,” she says.
Most of the attacks happen in the Aarey forests as there are humans and leopards sharing space. After a spate of attacks in 2017, there has been a lull since. Satellite collars have been put on five leopards living in the national park to research and understand their habits. This study has been going on for the past two years. According to her, there is no clarity on the reason for leopards to attack humans after being quiet for a long period. “Despite a slew of ongoing studies, it is difficult to understand the workings of their mind. There have been camera trappings within SGNP and the Aarey forests to identify leopards who attack settlements. If a leopard attacks humans they need to be identified and put down,” says Vidya.
Narrating an incident where a leopard known as Ajoba walked 125km in 25 days from Akole to SGNP, she feels that the big wild cats follow a direction of their own. This leopard made SGNP his home for two years and was killed in an accident on the highway close by. “This story is known by everyone who lives in the forest. This is a story that is told and retold and has now become a part of the tribal folklore. Respect for the animal and the wild is built on the foundation of narratives such as this,” says Vidya.
Her love for the wild started during her childhood when she lived in Chembur, in the eastern suburbs of Mumbai. In later years she studied Ecology and went to the Wildlife Institute of India at Dehradun and worked as a junior team member studying Asiatic Lions. She later studied the clouded leopards in Northeast India and followed this with degrees in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in the US, before coming back to work in India.
Vidya’s connection with leopards started in 2002 when she was living in Narayangaon, near Pune. This place had seen numerous leopard attacks, some of them fatal. She, along with three others, started a small project to study the human-leopard conflict in Junnar district that had also seen numerous leopard attacks. “We worked closely with the forest department and our research revealed that the attacks happened close to the release sites. The leopards were captured and released at random places and the attacks were taking place there. This is how I got started on working on the human-leopard conflict,” she says.
(This appeared in the print edition as "For the Love of Leopards")
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