Landscapes for leopards

This week, Elephant Family conservation partner and globally renowned conservationist Sanjay Gubbi published a study which he has co-authored with scientists Koustubh Sharma and Vijaya Kumara. The study looks at how human activity and development affects the population size and distribution of leopards in India, and uses data to provide suggested focus areas for conservation efforts.

Why study leopard distribution?

In order to effectively protect and conserve a species, it’s important to know where it is most commonly found (its distribution) and how many individuals there are (its population size). In understanding the factors affecting distribution and population, conservationist are then able to implement the best methods for conservation.

However, studying leopards is notoriously difficult owing to their elusive nature and as such comparatively little is known about them.

Study background

Over c. 24,000 km2 in Southern India, Gubbi et al. studied landscapes which are home to both humans and leopards.

Using surveys and data analyses, they were able to identify how different types of landscape affect availability of wild prey, and how this influences the presence of leopard populations.

Both protected areas, and landscapes which have been altered by human activity to make way for farming were reviewed to discover the abundance of wild prey and leopard populations.

Conclusions

The first of its kind, the authors have concluded that this type of study will be helpful for assessing distribution and population changes over large areas for many species other than the leopard.

The results show that the space used by leopards is overwhelmingly influenced by the amount of natural habitat available to them, and the subsequent presence of wild prey.

Importantly, the study has revealed that much of the areas in which leopards hunt is outside of currently protected areas.

These areas are at threat from habitat destruction to make way for farming and agriculture, meaning that there are fewer leopards because of a reduced availability of wild prey. However, in areas where natural habitats have been protected there is an abundance of native, wild prey species meaning that leopards are able to thrive, demonstrated by higher population numbers .

What does this mean for conservation?

When wild prey is unavailable, leopards begin to prey upon domesticated and farmed animals such as cattle and goats. This of course is detrimental to the livelihoods of local communities who depend on these livestock for income and food.

Occasionally, these instances of predation lead to human-wildlife conflict where farmers retaliate in order to protect both their livestock and their livelihoods, meaning that leopards can be harmed or even killed. It is this conflict which threatens the species, and requires conservation efforts identified by this study to resolve it.

India is currently undergoing rapid development due to economic changes and demand for natural resources, so the authors highlight the importance of landscape-based approach for conserving leopards. Similarly, conservation of wild prey, especially outside the protected areas is identified as potentially having a positive impact on reducing
human-leopard conflict.

This study contributes valuable understanding to the pressing issue of human-wildlife conflict and provides useful guidance for conservation efforts on the ground. Read the full paper here.