We’ve all heard stories of wild things turning up unexpectedly in cities. Coyotes have been found to thrive in Chicago, while a mountain lion was killed in an interaction with local police when they discovered it in an Iowan neighbourhood.
Just the other day I saw an adult fox lope out of a backyard in a residential area at night, completely oblivious to me in my car (which is fair, considering I had no idea it was living so near me either).
Researchers now have conclusive evidence of the full extent to which big cats can coexist with humans in urban areas.
Vidya Athreya and colleagues conducted a camera trap survey of cropland areas in Maharashtra, India, with a population density of over 300 humans per square kilometre. They surveyed 40 sites, typically on trails frequented by humans, for a total of only 30 nights.
Despite only a month’s worth of imaging, the results of their endeavours are remarkably vivid.
First, only in three locations did their camera traps get stolen. This in itself (I thought) was worth reporting, as anyone who has ever placed cameras in public areas unsupervised will no doubt admit.
Second, a LOT of people figured out what they were doing and showed up to have their picture taken!
More importantly though, they recovered a total of 4124 pictures of 13 species during the 1110 trap nights on which the cameras were active.
Naturally, humans came out on top. (By the way, I love that they included them in their list.) Next up – domestic cats. Nothing surprising thus far, but things do get a lot more interesting shortly.
They found leopards, literally in peoples’ backyards. By placing two cameras at every trap site they were able to employ a favored technique that captures both sides of the subject’s body. They then spent hours poring over the images, identifying patterns in the leopards’ spots, till they whittled down the 81 images of cats they observed to five adult males and six adult females, in addition to a few cubs.
Each of these cats was captured on more than one camera, and the mean maximum distance the cats had moved was 3.53 km (or ~2.2 mi) between cameras. The final leopard density was about 6.5 leopards per 100 km² (give or take 1 leopard).
Their suspected diet is likely to be ungulates, as a main course, with domestic dogs for dessert. There are no other likely prey species available at this site.
Remarkably, despite this change in diet from natural conditions, leopard density in this area is higher than that of almost any other disturbed site censused anywhere in the world, and even on par with censuses within national parks.
The second most common carnivore captured on film was the striped hyaena. A series of 65 images revealed at least 12 individuals, also recognisable by their distinctive coats. Density estimates hover at around 9 animals (give or take 3) per 100 km².
While higher densities have been reported from inside some Indian national parks, no one has ever recorded hyaenas outside protected areas in such high densities.
Can urban areas sustain wild carnivores?
The answer, it appears, is certainly. Images showed that the carnivore population was not comprised of transient, dispersing sub-adults, but contained cubs as well as adults. In other words, these habitats support a
“dense, established, breeding population of leopards.” (Athreya et al. 2013)
No tigers or wolves were observed at any time, which supports the study findings, given that the lack of tigers could be the driving reason for such high leopard densities.
The authors of this study propose an intriguing theory. Perhaps conservationists need to move away from the traditional approach of using large carnivores as flagship species for conservation of pristine forested habitats, based on the reasoning that these animals cannot survive without natural prey and minimal human contact. An alternative is to focus on conserving wildlife within human-modified landscapes, by providing means by which human populations can coexist with other predators (within reason).
The major concern is always that of carnivore attacks on humans or their livestock, both of which create aggressive retaliation by the human populace. The authors assert that in India, where the law prohibits the killing of any wildlife for sport or consumption (even if that animal has recently eaten your only cow), social tolerance of wild animals is likely higher than in other areas. I find this debatable, given the difficulties of implementing such a law, let alone in a country of over a billion individuals.
Human-wildlife conflict is a reality in the area, as evidenced by more work by Project Waghoba, Athreya’s research and conservation organisation that strives to keep the peace between big cats and humans.
With only 5% of the country protected for big cats, India is in critical need of conservation corridors that allow for gene flow between isolated populations.
Perhaps, Athreya and colleagues suggest, we are already unknowingly getting there.
If you are interested in reading more on the ongoing work in Maharashtra, visit wildlife biologist Vidya Athreya’s website.
Athreya V., Odden M., Linnell J.D.C., Krishnaswamy J., Karanth U. & Hayward M. (2013). Big Cats in Our Backyards: Persistence of Large Carnivores in a Human Dominated Landscape in India, PLoS ONE, 8 (3) e57872. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057872.s001
Vidya Athreya interviewed by Tehelka on the intricacies of mediating leopard-human interactions.
Media attention garnered by efforts of Project Waghoba since its initiation.
A nifty little cartoon on this research and its outcomes