The secret lives of leopards

Understanding the ecology of leopards in Karnataka 

Leopards are amongst the most elusive of large mammals, and yet, one of the key conflict-prone species in India. This study, across a 27,000 sq km landscape in Karnataka strives to understand leopard distribution across a habitat modification gradient, and their interactions with people in human-dominated landscapes. 

  • Forested areas are often thought to be prime leopard habitats

  • Being highly adaptable, leopards also inhabit landscapes that offer a mix of natural and anthropogenic habitats

  • Camera trapping helps estimate leopard densities in areas under different management regimes

  • Leopards that come into conflict with people are frequently captured and translocated

  • Radio collaring helps reveal untold stories about the way leopards live

  • Public information campaigns on safe coexistence with leopards help spread awareness amongst people in high conflict zones

  • While camera trapping for leopards in Karnataka's Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, we stumbled upon a population of the elusive ratel or honey badger

Leopard distribution across land-use gradients

Leopards are known for their remarkable adaptability and it is no surprise, therefore, that their range is not limited to protected areas. Yet, in Karnataka, there is little reliable information on leopard distribution, especially outside protected areas and other natural habitats. Similarly, we know very little about the extent and intensity of human-leopard conflict across the state. Since 2012, we have been conducting extensive occupancy surveys to understand leopard distribution in a variety of habitats, ranging from protected areas and multiple use forests to agricultural landscapes and other leopard habitats that are not governed under any conservation laws. 

Estimating leopard densities

In addition to understanding the distribution of leopards, we are also estimating  leopard densities within and outside protected areas through camera trapping surveys. Some of our preliminary data has revealed healthy leopard populations outside protected areas. 

While our camera traps 'captured' several leopards, we were especially delighted by pictures of a host of other smaller animals. Our surveys photo-documented the ratel or the honey badger for the first time in the state (short video below), while several of our cameras were damaged by selfie-hungry sloth bears and elephants.


Conflict with the large cat

As opportunities present themselves, we are also placing radio-collars on leopards captured by the forest department from settings of conflict, to understand how they behave and respond when they are released in faraway areas. This helps us assess the value of translocation as a conflict management tool and its impact on leopards.

We have also established a database that systematically compiles information on human-leopard conflict to understand spatial and temporal distribution of conflict within the state. This is helping us put together a detailed map of conflict hotspots in Karnataka. Identification of these hotspots helps us focus more detailed conflict assessments there while also helping us select areas in which to  carry out public information campaigns that enable people to coexist safely with leopards.

Leopard conflict interpolationl

A map of hotspots based on leopard-human conflicts reported in newspapers during January 2009-July 2014. It is likely that these are underestimates given that many incidences of conflict may go unreported in newspapers.

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Publications

  • Report
    2016
    Safely handling situations when leopards enter human dense areas - English version
    September 2016
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    PDF, 21.9 MB

    This manual covers key measures to be taken by various agencies in handling situations when leopards venture into human dense areas. It provides practical information to handle leopard situations when they enter cities, towns, villages, when leopards fall into dry or wells with water, or when they are found caught in snares. 

    The manual also provides information on the equipment that's required to be kept by the forest department and other agencies in areas where there are repeated instances of leopards entering human dense areas. It provides information on Karnataka government procedures in providing ex-gratia, documenting leopard presence in an area, and outreach activities that could be undertaken in high interface areas.

    This manual is also available in Kannada.

  • Report
    2016
    ಚಿರತೆಗಳು ಜನ ನಿಬಿಡ ಪ್ರದೇಶಗಳನ್ನು ಪ್ರವೇಶಿಸಿದ ಸನ್ನಿವೇಶಗಳನ್ನು ಸುರಕ್ಷಿತವಾಗಿ ನಿಭಾಯಿಸುವ ವಿಧಾನಗಳು (Safely handling situations when leopards enter human dense areas - Kannada version)
    October 2016

    ಚಿರತೆಯು ಜನ ನಿಬಿಡ ಪ್ರದೇಶಕ್ಕೆ ಬಂದಾಗಿನ ಸಂದರ್ಭಗಳನ್ನು ನಿಭಾಯಿಸುವಲ್ಲಿ ವಿವಿಧ ಸಂಸ್ಥೆಗಳು ಕೈಗೊಳ್ಳಬೇಕಾದ ಪ್ರಮುಖ ಕ್ರಮಗಳನ್ನು ಈ ಕೈಪಿಡಿಯಲ್ಲಿ ನೀಡಲಾಗಿದೆ. ಚಿರತೆ ಪಟ್ಟಣ, ಗ್ರಾಮದಂತಹ ವಸತಿ ಪ್ರದೇಶಕ್ಕೆ ಬಂದಾಗ, ಚಿರತೆಯು ನೀರಿರುವ ಅಥವಾ ನೀರಿಲ್ಲದ ಬಾವಿಗೆ ಬಿದ್ದಾಗ ಮತ್ತು ಚಿರತೆಯು ಉರುಳಿಗೆ ಸಿಕ್ಕಿಕೊಂಡ ಸಂದರ್ಭಗಳನ್ನು ಪ್ರಾಯೋಗಿಕವಾಗಿ ನಿಭಾಯಿಸುವ ಬಗೆಗಿನ ಮಾಹಿತಿಯನ್ನು ಇದರಲ್ಲಿ ನೀಡಲಾಗಿದೆ.

    ಚಿರತೆಗಳು ಜನ ನಿಬಿಡ ಪ್ರದೇಶಕ್ಕೆ ಬರುವ ಸನ್ನಿವೇಶಗಳನ್ನು ಆಗಾಗ್ಗೆ ಎದುರಿಸುವ ಪ್ರದೇಶಗಳಲ್ಲಿ ಅರಣ್ಯ ಇಲಾಖೆ ಮತ್ತು ವಿವಿಧ ಸಂಸ್ಥೆಗಳು ಇಟ್ಟುಕೊಳ್ಳಬೇಕಾದ ಉಪಕರಣಗಳ ಮಾಹಿತಿಯನ್ನು ಸಹ ಕೈಪಿಡಿಯಲ್ಲಿ ನೀಡಲಾಗಿದೆ. ಕರ್ನಾಟಕ ಸರ್ಕಾರದಿಂದ ವನ್ಯಜೀವಿ ಹಾವಳಿಗೆ ಪರಿಹಾರ ನೀಡುವ ಪ್ರಕ್ರಿಯೆಯ ಬಗ್ಗೆ, ಒಂದು ಪ್ರದೇಶದಲ್ಲಿ ಚಿರತೆಯ ಇರುವಿಕೆಯನ್ನು ಧೃಡಪಡಿಸಿಕೊಳ್ಳುವ ಬಗ್ಗೆ, ಅಧಿಕ ಸಂಘರ್ಷ ಇರುವ ಪ್ರದೇಶಗಳಲ್ಲಿ ಅರಿವು ಮೂಡಿಸುವ ಚಟುವಟಿಕೆಗಳನ್ನು ಹಮ್ಮಿಕೊಳ್ಳುವ ಬಗ್ಗೆ ಸಹ ಮಾಹಿತಿಯನ್ನು ನೀಡಲಾಗಿದೆ.

  • Poster
    2015
    Poster depicting dog and leopard pugmarks designed to help reduce anxiety and tensions - English version
    March 2015
    Download

    JPG, 611 KB

    On many instances dog pugmarks are mistaken as leopard tracks and there is pressure exerted on the forest department to capture leopards from the area. This has led to unnecessary anxiety in communities, tensions between communities and forest department, and possibly capture of leopards with no reason. Hence, a poster that would differentiate tracks between dogs and leopards were designed to help in awareness activities.

  • Poster
    2015
    Poster depicting dog and leopard pugmarks designed to help reduce anxiety and tensions - Kannada version
    March 2015
    Download

    JPG, 560 KB

    On many instances dog pugmarks are mistaken as leopard tracks and there is pressure exerted on the forest department to capture leopards from the area. This has led to unnecessary anxiety in communities, tensions between communities and forest department, and possibly capture of leopards with no reason. Hence, a poster that would differentiate tracks between dogs and leopards were designed to help in awareness activities.

  • Journal Article
    2014
    Roads emerging as a critical threat to leopards in India?
    Cat News 60 Spring 2014 (30)
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    PDF, 565 KB

    Leopards (Panthera pardus) face severe threat from poaching, loss of habitat and killing in retaliation to conflict. However, in India a new threat appears to be emerging in the form of vehicle accident mortalities. In the past 60 months 23 leopards have been recorded as killed due to road accidents in the southern Indian state of Karnataka alone. When roads overlap with important wildlife habitats, considerable scrutiny and critical conservation planning is urgently required

  • Journal Article
    2014
    Photographic records of the Ratel Mellivora capensis from the southern Indian state of Karnataka
    Small Carnivore Conservation, 50, 42-44.

    Understanding about the occurrence and distribution of the Ratel Mellivora capensis from the Indian subcontinent is hindered by the animal’s elusive nature. The first photographic evidence of Ratel for the southern Indian state of Karnataka comprises 41 camera-trap records from Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary. During January–March 2014, Ratels were detected in the sanctuary’s different forest types broadly in proportion to camera-trapping effort therein. A wider occupancy survey, using a range of methods including camera-trapping, would help obtain a better understanding of the distribution of this cryptic species in Karnataka and neighbouring regions.

  • Journal Article
    2014
    Tracing the geographic origin of traded leopardbody parts in the Indian subcontinent withDNA-based assignment tests
    Samrat Mondol, Vanjulavalli Sridhar, Prasanjeet Yadav, Sanjay Gubbi, Uma Ramakrishnan
    Conservation Biology, 2014, DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12393
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    PDF, 973 KB

    Illicit trade in wildlife products is rapidly decimating many species across the globe. Such trade is often underestimated for wide-ranging species until it is too late for the survival of their remaining populations. Policing this trade could be vastly improved if one could reliably determine geographic origins of illegal wildlife products and identify areas where greater enforcement is needed. Using DNA-based assignment tests (i.e., samples are assigned to geographic locations), we addressed these factors for leopards (Panthera pardus) on the Indian subcontinent. We created geography-specific allele frequencies from a genetic reference database of 173 leopards across India to infer geographic origins of DNA samples from 40 seized leopard skins. Sensitivity analyses of samples of known geographic origins and assignments of seized skins demonstrated robust assignments for Indian leopards. We found that confiscated pelts seized in small numbers were not necessarily from local leopards. The geographic footprint of large seizures appeared to be bigger than the cumulative footprint of several smaller seizures, indicating widespread leopard poaching across the subcontinent. Our seized samples had male-biased sex ratios, especially the large seizures. From multiple seized sample assignments, we identified central India as a poaching hotspot for leopards. The techniques we applied can be used to identify origins of seized illegal wildlife products and trade routes at the subcontinent scale and beyond.

  • Report
    2014
    Ecology and conservation status of leopards in Bhadravathi Territorial Division
    October 2014
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    PDF, 15.6 MB

    Despite the leopard (Panthera pardus) being a highly conflict-prone species with a wide distribution range, there are few population estimates of this species in Karnataka, especially outside protected areas. Effective conservation of this large carnivore and mitigation measures towards leopard conflict requires reliable estimates of population density in various habitats and landscapes with different management priorities. We conducted a population estimation exercise for the leopard using photographic capture-recapture analysis, using spatially explicit capture–recapture (SECR) models, in the multiple-use forests in Bhadravathi Division in central-interior Karnataka. Density estimates for leopards in this 370 km2 area, which includes 14 state, minor forests and sandal reserves, all continuous to each other, was found to be 11.1/100 km2 (95% CI 9.7-12.2/100 km2) with an estimated population size of 44 individuals (95% CI 39-49). We also recorded 14 species of large and small leopard prey from this area including gaur, sambar, chital, barking deer, four-horned antelope, wild pig and mouse deer. Using publicly available forest cover analyses tools, we estimate that the area has lost forest cover of ~14% since their notification between 1905 and 1941. We propose that the forest areas surveyed be declared as a wildlife sanctuary under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 to uphold to their rich wildlife values.

  • Poster
    2013
    Poster designed to carry out awareness programs regarding human-leopard conflict
    Sanjay Gubbi, Maya Ramaswamy, H C Poornesha
    March 2013
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    JPG, 1.17 MB

    Leopard outreach activities are carried out based on the locations identified through conflict monitoring activity. This poster specifically designed to address conflict issues is distributed to communities to minimize anxiety and help in conflict reduction.

  • Poster
    2012
    Poster for public information campaigns to dissuade people from "rescuing" leopard cubs
    October 2012
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    JPG, 207 KB

    This poster was part of public information campaigns undertaken in order to highlight the impacts of picking up leopard cubs from forests, sugarcane fields and other areas.

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