Big cat in the backyard! Leopards adapting to survive around humans & to avoid conflict - Hindustan Times

Big cat in the backyard! Leopards adapting to survive around humans & to avoid conflict

Dec 08, 2023 07:06 AM IST

Ravi K Singh, the divisional forest officer of Awadh region, says, “Leopard sightings occur every 48 days on average.”

LUCKNOW: In the heart of the state capital, Lucknow, leopards are making regular appearances, adapting to urban life in an effort to survive alongside humans and minimise conflicts.

Leopard (PTI)
Leopard (PTI)

With the city encroaching on the tiger corridor, the frequency of leopard sightings in Lucknow averages once every 48 days. The expanding human habitat has encroached upon the surrounding forests, prompting some wildlife to adapt to the urban landscape.

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Ravi K Singh, the divisional forest officer of Awadh region, says, “Leopard sightings occur every 48 days on average. At least four-or-five leopards are believed to inhabit the forested areas around Lucknow, employing survival strategies that keep them at a safe distance from humans.”

The reported areas of leopard activity in the Lucknow periphery include Chinhat, Malesmau, Banthra, and Malihabad. Wildlife experts suggest that if four or five leopards are reported, there may be more residing in the forest. Meanwhile, the tiger corridor, extending from Shahjahanpur through Sitapur and reaching Lucknow, encompasses areas like Jankipuram on the Sitapur road.

Ravi K Singh adds, “Leopards from the forested areas surrounding the state capital venture into urban settlements for food, following a nocturnal pattern between 8 pm and 4 am, as observed by our teams.” He adds, “Leopards are active between 11 pm and 3 am, traveling up to 50 kilometres. While they have preyed on dogs and chickens in Lucknow, no conflicts with humans have been reported. Instances where leopards strayed into human-populated areas resulted in successful rescues, with the animals either returned to the jungle or given a safe passage to find their way back.”

This information is based on field surveys and images captured by over 100 static camera traps strategically placed across Lucknow, monitoring the movements of wildlife in urban and semi-urban pockets. The leopard’s distinctive features, including large eyes with dilated pupils, contribute to their ability to navigate effectively in the dark, showcasing their incredible adaptability as they cover significant distances during the night.

How have leopards adapted to urban life?

The adaptation of leopards to urban life is exemplified by the phenomenon known as ‘imprinting’ or innate learning. Field monitoring has revealed that leopards have altered their diet, incorporating dogs and chickens as a survival strategy in proximity to human habitats. This change in eating habits has enabled leopards to thrive, even without large prey.

Previously, leopards did not prey on these animals. However, with humans in the district periphery discarding waste in the outskirts, dogs frequenting these areas have become easy targets for leopards. Additionally, chickens roaming in localities have also fallen prey to these felines.

The recent accidental death of a leopard on Shaheed Path near Malesmau serves as an example of a leopard losing its way and venturing onto a busy road, resulting in its demise. Lucknow has witnessed instances where leopards, despite being in urban areas, were allowed to return to the forest instead of being tranquilised.

In the third week of May 2023, a leopard was sighted by a factory security guard in Chinhat. While panic ensued among the factory workers, forest officials analysed the situation and strategically facilitated the leopard’s return to the forest without human intervention.

Ravi K Singh said, “There was a pond inside the big campus, and due to summer, water had dried up everywhere else. We kept a close watch, and with the support of people living there, the leopard was given a safe passage back to the forest early in June.”’

In December 2021, a leopard was also safely guided through the Kukrail forest area after being spotted by locals in Kalyanpur. Singh said, “We directed the leopard to reach Kukrail Nallah, and it returned to the forest on its own. We maintained vigilance for a month, but it never returned.”

Rahul Shukla, former (honorary) wildlife warden at Dudhwa Tiger Reserve and member of the State Wildlife Advisory Board, underscored the survival instincts of leopards that enable them to thrive in the surrounding forests of Lucknow saying, “If big cats vanish, leopards will be the last to go due to their survival tactics. They have a substantial prey base, hunting down snakes, frogs, chickens, and goats, among other animals, for survival.”

Shukla added, “Leopards need 10 pounds of food in the morning and an equal amount at night. Tigers require up to 60 pounds of food every day to survive. Interestingly, leopards can endure prolonged hunger pangs. To catch a bird, they can leap up to 8 feet from the ground or hide in trees to consume avian prey.”

Leopards exhibit a robust survival mechanism. Areas where leopards are reported to inhabit include Malihabad, an area with blue bulls, and Bakshi Ka Talab, along the river Gomti, where leopards find comfortable dwellings. Shukla estimates, “At least 20 leopards could be surviving around Lucknow. Some wolves and foxes are also present.”

How is the survival method learned?

Experts underline that the first generation of leopards manages to survive by continually discovering new ways each day and striking a balance between their food needs and human habits. By the time the third generation grows large enough to become predators, they already possess the knowledge of maintaining a safe distance from humans who could pose a threat.

“In essence, it is the third generation that is residing around Lucknow, surviving by adapting ways to avoid direct confrontation with humans. Incidents of leopards entering human habitats occur when they forget what they have learned, as seen in the most recent case on Shaheed Path. The leopard met with an accident and died,” said Shukla.

He added that since the majority of leopards understand the threat posed by humans, natural avoidance of man-animal conflict occurs. However, the threat from leopards persists, and there is no encouragement for them to be invited into homes.

Camera traps, small bark-coloured electronic devices equipped with cameras, flashes, and laser sensors, play a crucial role. These devices, approximately 10 inches by 5 inches in size, can be discreetly hidden inside tree bark by making a cut. Installed in pairs facing each other, the camera traps activate the laser sensor as an animal passes through, capturing an image within a second. Typically used to detect the presence of wild animals in deep/core forests, forest boundaries, and urban areas with reported wildlife presence.

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