Meet Wildlife Biologist Dr. VidyaAthreya, who has been working on minimising human-leopard conflict for over a decade. In conversation with WWF-India’s Indira Akoijam.

Dr. Vidya Athreya began her work on human-leopard interactions in 2003 when an assignment with WCS-India on leopard attacks took her to Junnar, Maharashtra (100 kms from Pune). When she started out, like the most of us, she assumed that human-wildlife interaction would always lead to conflict.

A camera trap image from Sanjay Gandhi National Park of a leopard with the city in the background.

© Nikit Surve

After working on the issue for many years and visiting regions in India where people share their spaces with wild animals, she is convinced that the peaceful coexistence of humans and wildlife, including the big cats is more the norm than an exception. Since then, the wildlife biologist has been studying the socio-cultural aspects in human-leopard interface and has been instrumental in managing human-leopard conflict cases across the country. 

Dr. Vidya Athreya,
The Leopard Whisperer

What drew you to study leopards?
Leopards are a species that makes us constantly question our preconceived notions about many things, which is what fascinated me about them. For instance, they challenge our notion of where wild animals should be. Leopards easily move between areas we think wildlife should be in (such as national parks) to urban and rural landscapes (which is where we urbanites do not expect wildlife). They occur in forests, deserts, snow covered areas, agricultural areas, tea gardens, plantations - you name it! Just like adaptable human beings, the adaptable leopard also makes her home where she can get food. Again, prey for leopards can range from wild deer and goats to dogs and rodents, allowing them to live in most human occupied areas which are so rich in domestic animals. Not only are they the most adaptable of the large cats in the world, but they are amazing as they probably live mostly in close proximity to humans and we know so little about how they, and the people who share spaces with them, do so. This story of co-adaptation is fascinating to me from both angles; that of leopards as well as those of the people, which is why this subject has mesmerized me for so long.

You started with a study to understand leopard attacks of people in Junnar. What did you learn?
Information collected by our team in Junnar shown that attacks on people increased near places where leopards had been translocated and the more the translocation, the higher the probablity of lethal attacks on people. Leopards are wild, shy animals and territorial by nature - randomly translocating them will only stress them, disrupt their societies and result in animals who have no idea of the new place they have been left in. This method is alright in countries like Namibia, with less than 20 people per km² but in India this is dangerous. Our five-year long study in Akole, 60 km from Junnar helped in determining leopard behavior in densely populated areas and how human-leopard co-existence can be achieved. The study revealed that around 90% of the leopard’s diet included feral dogs, pigs and other domestic animals. It also refuted the idea of translocating the leopards simply because they were seen.

A camera trap image from Sanjay Gandhi National Park of a leopard with a domestic chicken in its mouth.

© Nikit Surve

We understand that when faced with an aggressive encounter with humans, the big cat would react as it would. But what is the basic instinct of a leopard -  is he really shy?Leopards, like all other wild animals, are extremely shy and avoid humans. I have come across more signs that a leopard has just left the spot rather than bumping into them in my numerous years of experience. Many times when I have seen them too, they have left behind no more than a fleeting glimpse before they have vanished from sight and more often than not, they take cover just to observe, because they are curious cats. They are very loving parents – the mother, especially, is very protective of her cubs and takes good care of them for nearly two years of her life, a similar proportion that we humans take care of our children. The reason they are probably scared of humans is that we are predators and very unpredictable ones at that - killing for fun and not to fill our stomachs. 

Traditionally, our forefathers lived in peace with wildlife -  I have heard this from my grandfather many-a-times. Do you see how we can use this age old knowledge to teach lessons of coexistence to the modern world?
Oh you would be surprised! Locally in Maharastra, we hear of Waghoba, a feline deity, that protects the village that lives in close proximity to the forest. The stature and reverence given to the big cats ensures respect and coexistence. Certainly, in our forefathers’ times there was a greater scope of interactions which probably lead to a greater understanding about the wild and wildlife. Today, it is essentially our ignorance that leads to fear. We need to understand and learn from communities like Warlis, Gonds, MahadeoKolis and Velips who live in Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Goa that revere and worship the big cats. In fact, it is important for us to use their knowledge in conjunction with scientific knowledge in our awareness materials.

The team along with forest guards setting up camera traps at a small hamlet on the periphery of Sanjay Gandhi National Park.


What would you like to leave as a thought with our readers?
We are a country which is very unique in the way that humans share space with other creatures, both domestic and wild and this never ceases to amaze me. Where the origins of this lie, I do not know, but I am proud of the fact that we have the largest populations of tigers, elephants, leopards, wolves and the only population of the Asiatic lion in the world, despite a billion people. I do not think you will find another country on Earth where this holds true. I would like that you, dear readers, draw from this important aspect of our culture and use your curiosity to learn more about the wild that shares space with us humans. The interest in you will lead to your understanding and appreciating the web of life that binds us, humans and animals, together in India. We have given other creatures, both wild and domestic space in our human space and we hopefully will continue to do so.

Dr. Vidya Athreya’s team radio collaring a sedated leopard to monitor its movement.

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