Vidya Athreya has spent most of her time over the last few years hiding in sugarcane fields. She’s been on the leopard trail, following the, examining their spoor and spending nights on treetops, installing cameras to ‘trap’ their nocturnal activities.
“The aim,” says this mathematician turned biologist, “is to understand how large wild carnivores like leopards share human spaces. Camera trapping indicates the number of leopards living in a particular area.”
Through her research in rural Maharashtra — Junnar in Pune district and Akole taluka in Ahmednagar district — Athreya has conclusively shown that if man and the big cats are to survive together, the solution lies in co-existence, not separation. “There was enough evidence worldwide that capturing big cats and releasing them elsewhere does not solve the problem of conflict. But I had to prove it with data and records here,” she explains. Further, she says, the practice, in use across the country for over two decades, does not prevent further attacks; it actually leads to more.
The proof? “There has never been a major attack in these areas, showing that if we leave them alone, they keep their distance too. Accidental attacks, leopards and human beings bumping into each other have occurred — maybe once in two years — but the picking up and killing of children has stopped,” she says.
Acknowledge the value of her intervention and Athreya insists: “I am not there to impact anything. I am only there to document and study,” she insists.
In six months, Athreya will start belling the cats, literally. The Indian Institute of Science (Bangalore); the Kaati Trust, Pune; the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bangalore and the Maharashtra forest department have entrusted her with the responsibility of radio-collaring 10 spotted cats.
Athreya will be in familiar territory once again.