From Left to Right: Ajji cooking in her pictureque Kitchen, Gawlis who live in the open andleopards often come for the calves
Laughter comes easy to the people here – a lady was sitting outside her house washing the dinner utensils. Below was a path that skirted a corn field. When done, like always, she emptied the trough of dirty water into the field below where unknown to her a leopard was quietly walking his way. Whether he growled at her because the water was dirty is not known but on hearing the growl, the lady threw everything and ran into the house. The farmer who recounted this to me a few days later was laughing and so did I.
A common sight - of boys cutting sugarcane
Women planting onion oblivious of leopard sitting behind in sugarcane
It is not the landscape that is surreal. Most irrigated valleys in western Maharashtra are lush green, clothed with sugarcane and other cash crops. What shocks every visitor when I drive them into this valley is the fact that leopards live here as well. There are no wildlife sanctuaries for miles around, nor are there wild herbivores – only people and their domestic animals. I enjoy watching visitor's eyes widen in disbelief as I tell them that this is my field site where I have been studying the leopards for the last three years. Usually they try and argue back - maybe the leopards live on the adjoining hills? (even if they are bare) and only occasionally come here? Maybe they come only for water and food? After three years of work, it is easier for me to convince them because now I have proof.

It is not even that the local people do not come across the leopards. Man and animal use the same paths at night. The farmers have to go to their fields in the middle of the night to switch on the pumps to water their fields. Unlike cities, rural areas have power cuts for eight hours every day and many a time there is electricity only in the night. The leopards also use the landscape only in the night and come to houses to look for dogs and goats. Despite this overlap in time and space usage, no one has died due to leopard attacks in the valley.
 
Our collared leopard is sitting in the sugarcane
It was by chance that I stumbled on the Sangamner valley. Until then even I thought it strange that leopards could live in croplands, among people. But that was our collective mistake; of the urban mindset which understands little of rural India. Moreover, wildlife scientists, NGO's and wildlife camping organizations have reinforced this urban mindset that wildlife is found only in forests. Youngsters experience wildlife only inside forests and grow up to be conservationists and scientists believing that only forests can harbour wildlife. However, wild animals know no borders. In India, they cannot afford to because people and their livestock are everywhere.

It was when Dr Aniruddha Belsare and I were helping the Forest Department to microchip leopards back in 2004 that I realized there were so many leopards that were being trapped from the sugarcane areas.What was more interesting was that not a single one was trapped because it had attacked people, but they were caught because people, usually influential and/or rich, had put pressure on the Forest Department to remove them, believing that removing an animal will make the area "leopard free". Then, in keeping with our understanding (or lack thereof), these animals were translocated to forested areas. Our work in 2003 found that often, human attacks took place near these release sites and our biologically inappropriate interventions were worsening conflict. The reasons were covered at length in the Sanctuary issue (Feb 2009)

In the winter of 2007, I obtained the Kaplan Graduate Award from Panthera and along with the interest, support and sometimes even goading by various officers in the Maharashtra Forest Department, I could start my work. The first job was to collect leopard scats. It was a challenge, I thought, to find scats in a landscape crisscrossed with paths; every field had four bunds and then there were main roads, village roads, dry streambeds etc. Searching for a needle in a sugarcane stack! In the end, the exercise did turn out to be fruitful. Our two teams would walk about 10 km each day under the hot Deccan sun and by 2 or 3 pm, our tempers were running high and we were really tired. If then we were asked by the inquisitive local people what we were doing, imagination soared high and our answers ranged from "collecting leopard scats to sell in China because they would extract gold" to keeping quiet when people thought our male team were saree vendors because of the backpack full of leopard scats! We found scats everywhere – on mud roads, in the sugarcane bunds and in the dry streambeds. Many of the scats had dog hair, and the interesting finds were domestic cat claws in leopard feces, and a few bandicoot and mongoose and civet.
Top: Kakas at a cattle fair,Bottom: People's path where we also set up camera traps,
     
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