Collection of leopard scats.
The scat collection helped us understand the landscape better in order to decide where to set up the camera traps, another major part of the project, which was supervised by Dr Ullas Karanth, whose experience in using this technique was a valuable input into this work. I was worried that the cameras would get stolen but my enterprising assistant, Eknath Ghule, who is a local farmer told me to put them near farmer's houses as a safety measure. And it worked. The farmers further helped us by covering the traps early in the morning -- when they left home around 6am to deliver milk to the collection centres -- with gunny sacks we had left behind. Otherwise, we would have wasted a lot of exposures. Finally, we got about 1500 exposures of people, many who came from far and wide and even posed for the camera. We also got images of leopards, hyaenas, rusty spotted cat, jackal and fox. The analyses indicated a breeding population of leopards at about 9 adults per 100 sq km. These densities are similar to Rajaji National Park but where I work, there is no natural forest and people live at densities of about 200 per sq km, along with the leopards.
All of the above, eaten by our collared leopards
The last part of the project was trying to understand how resident and translocated leopards used the landscapes and what the leopards living in the village areas were eating in an area otherwise devoid of wild herbivores. We used GPS– GSM collars to find this out. This work was part of a collaborative work funded by the Norwegian Government to CES, IISc and supervised by Dr R Sukumar on the Indian side and Drs John Linnell and Morten Odden on the Norwegian side. Their help was crucial as both of them had decades of experience in collaring large cats and carnivores. This work can prove to be very risky for the animal if not done well. But if done well, the knowledge generated can be put to good use so that eventually it benefits the species. Many wildlife veterinarians helped out, Drs Karabi Deka, Ajay Deshmukh and Yaduraj from the Wildlife SOS and Dr Vinaya Shelke from the SGNP Park, Mumbai was also a big help as she was more than willing to be on stand by in case I needed her help.

The results only highlighted the fact of how little we know about these animals. Ajoba, the 63 kg male was the first animal. He was collared near Ale Phata after he fell into a well along with the dog he was chasing.

When people arrived they saw the dog sitting on the leopard which was sitting on the water pump because there was no other place out of waters' reach. Ajoba was released at the foothills of the Malshej Ghats. He stayed near the release site for almost a week, going to the villages around in the night probably for dogs and goats. He then started walking, crossed the Mumbai Agra Highway, the Kasara Railway station, and headed straight west, crossed Tansa and Tungareshwar WLS and went to Nagla block of Sanjay Gandhi National Park. He took 20 days to cover about 120 km and then stayed put in Nagla block for two
months before going into main SGNP for two days and he went there by swimming across the creek. One day he was in Vasai Industrial Estate and when I saw that my heart skipped a beat, but fortunately that point was 5 days old when I got it. Unfortunately his collar did not send any signals after 2.5 months but in the time it did, we got an insight as to how their perception of distance and adaptability is so different than what we thought they were capable of.

Then there was Sita. One morning she was seen near a village near Nanashi, close to the border of Nashik with Gujarat (Surghana area). She then ran into a house which had people, injuring a few in the process as they ran out and shut the door behind them. She was brought to Nashik. She was visibly pregnant at that time. She was collared and released at Jawhar, about 50 km from where she was captured. In the next few weeks she attempted to go back half way in the direction of home, but then returned to her release site and her movements became extremely restricted, probably because she littered. She lived there for four months, sitting in the forests in the day and going to the nearby villages in the night. Then in October, four months after her release, she walked back to Nanashi where she was till her collar dropped off in May. She had not forgotten her home even after 4 months.
This female ranged widely and was photographed at 5 different locations
The difference between the translocated and the resident animals was the scale of movements. The translocated animals moved widely whereas the resident animals stayed localized, often visiting the same houses every few days to check if by chance the farmer had forgotten to shut his cattle shed. When you uproot such an animal and translocate it to an entirely new area, it does not know where and what prey is available and could then in desperation target children who are the easiest to get in our over-populated country.

There were so many other interesting insights from the work, though the analysis still is in the initial stages. For one, leopards are not as solitary as we thought. For instance, when we released the resident female, she headed back straight to where the collared male was sitting. And this we knew because we had set both collars to report locations at the same time. Only later, with evidence from DNA tests, we understood that he probably was her son, about 2 years old. Very often they would be sitting in adjoining sugarcane fields. This also has implications for what they understand of us – if anything were to happen to one of them the other would know. When she gave birth to her next litter of cubs, for the first two months her older son was always there with her. A couple of days when the mother did not come back to the den in the sugarcane field for the day, the older brother was with the cubs.
Lakshai, one of our collared animals, with her buried pig at the back
This led me to think, that the tag of solitary is what we humans have given only because we were constrained by technology. These are extremely secretive animals and difficult to observe visually. Radio collars helped us know more about them. But most studies using radio telemetry involved only a handful of animals. Locations could be taken once a week or at best, once a day. Obviously we would conclude that the animals are solitary. Only when all individuals in the given area are tracked at the same time can we determine if they are solitary or not. I am sure they too are social, knowing their neighbours and who is where. In our case we were lucky to get this little peek into their world because we could get their locations at the same time.

This work has been a big eye opener in another regard. The crux of the issue to me is one of tolerance. In many talks in cities, I often ask the public which of them would let be a leopard that is coming to their lane only to get dogs and has never harmed people. I do not think a single hand has ever been raised.
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