Leopards are abundant in tea-garden lanscapes in north-eastern India, but their mere presence does not necessarily lead to conflicts with people, a new study has found.
Researchers studied leopard signs for the first time in a human-dominated, tea-garden landscape and found that nearly 25 per cent of the areas that have high probability of being used by leopards lie outside of forested patches.
According to them, leopards use tea-gardens due to the availability of dense ground vegetation cover, while avoiding areas with a high density of developed areas.
Scientists, including those from the Centre for Wildlife Studies and National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, studied a tea-garden and forest mosaic in the northern West Bengal and covered a densely populated area of about 600 square kilometres.
The landscape is defined by a matrix of small protected areas interspersed between vast stretches of tea-gardens, agricultural fields, and villages, and is part of the East- Himalayan biodiversity hotspot.
The study mapped more than 170 locations where people were injured by leopards. Researchers interviewed about 90 of those injured between 2009 and 2016.
More than 350 leopard-human encounters were reported during this period, with five resulting in human fatalities.
Researchers found no significant relationship between the probability of attack and probability of habitat-use by leopards.
“Our results indicate that an increased use of an area by leopards, in itself, does not translate to an increased number of attacks on people,” said Aritra Kshettry, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) India Program affiliate.
“The interviews of victims who were attacked by leopards suggest that these encounters are accidental in nature since most of the attacks resulted in minor injuries and occurred during the day while people were working in the tea plantations,” said Kshettry, lead author of the study published in the journal PLOS ONE.
“The results of the study highlight the importance of non-protected human-use areas as conservation landscapes for wide ranging carnivores and also underscore the need to devise effective and proactive mitigation strategies to avoid accidental encounters between people and leopards,” said Vidya Athreya, scientist at WCS.
The study also identified hot-spots of leopard-human interactions, providing impetus to developing regional conflict mitigation strategies.