The first GPS study of leopard behaviour in India has revealed that many live surprisingly close to human homes without them ever noticing.
The research is particularly relevant for towns outside the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivali near Mumbai, where human-leopard conflicts are common, and leopards are usually assumed to be trespassing when they’re found nearby to homes.
But the new research, which mapped the activity of five leopards for a year, has shown that the leopards were probably already living close by, unnoticed for months, and actually depend on human livestock to survive.
“When leopards are found outside the forest in a high-population density area, we think they have strayed. But it’s their home as much as it is ours,” said biologist Vidya Athreya from the Wildlife Conservation Society India in a press release.
“Leopards are adaptable and therefore can survive among humans unlike tigers. Human beings have drawn maps of protected area, but leopards don’t understand our boundaries,” Athreya added.
The five test leopards, two males and three females, were picked up as “problem animals” in human-dense areas last year, and radio collared. Then two were moved and released 50 km away, while the other three were released just near where they were captured. The results of their movements over the next 12 months have now been published in PLOS ONE.
Interestingly, the leopards that had been translocated immediately travelled up to 89 km from where they’d been dropped off, walking right through plenty of villages on their way. This is evidence that dumping leopards in the middle of nowhere in the hopes that they’ll stay away from human towns doesn’t work.
But the data also showed that the leopards made an effort to avoid humans on their journeys, by moving mostly at night, particularly when they were close to homes.
“This gave them an access to people’s livestock, and yet kept them safe from people,” Athreya explained in the release.
The research also showed that the leopards that were released close by to towns had a far smaller home range than those who were moved elsewhere – only 8 to 15 square kilometres compared to 42 to 65 square kilometres. Home range is an indication of how much hunting animals are doing in order to survive, the smaller the home range, the easier it is for an animal to find food – and these are the smallest home ranges for leopards recorded anywhere in the world.
“This indicated that food sources associated with humans [domestic animals] supported these leopards,” said Athreya.
If it wasn’t already clear enough that the leopards were living under the noses of their human feeders this whole time, two of the females even gave birth to cubs during the course of the study, all while living nearby to villages.
But despite their cohabiting, none of these leopards studied were involved in human deaths or injuries. So as far as neighbours go, there are definitely worse ones out there. And look at how well they can get on with other big cats!