Mumbai, April 15, 2007
The leopards of Maharashtra may not know, but they are being stalked. A determined woman from Pune has been on their trail since the last four years. She has seen over 100 of the stealthy, agile Panthera pardus at such close quarters that she can tell you the difference in their spots.
For wildlife biologist Vidya Athreya, saving the much-misunderstood Indian leopard is a routine and a passion that has not stopped her from scrambling up trees and hiding in sugarcane fields to detect the nocturnal big cat.
"Leopards can coexist even in human-dominated landscapes if we know how to deal with them appropriately," said Athreya, who switched after graduating in mathematics to do two Masters in ecology at the University of Pondicherry and the Ioha University, US between 1997-2001.
Athreya and wildlife veterinarian Anirudh Belsare recently developed the identity chips that are being tagged on to the tails of leopards by the state's wildlife wing, before they release them into the wild.
"Rural people have a higher tolerance level and sensitivity about leopards," said Athreya, who aims to spread awareness on resolving the man-animal conflict as leopards stray into urban areas. In most cases, either the humans or the leopard end up hurt or killed in fear.
In 2005, Athreya reported that leopard attacks actually increase after trapping and releasing the cats. "A few release sites over many years are likely to lead to the high leopard numbers seen in many parts of Maharashtra," the study said. "In such cases, the conflict zone ranges 40-60 km away from the site of release."
Even in the US, the behaviour of mountain lions of Utah has shown a similar trend.
"In one case, 12 mountain lions in Utah, US were removed from their location after livestock deaths. But it did not change the level of conflict because 17 younger mountain lions moved in to occupy those vacant territories."
Athreya's passion began in Mumbai after a nature camp at the foothills of the Anna Malai in Karnataka, organised by the Ruia College where she was studying mathematics. There was one fleeting sighting of a leopard that put her on their trail.
She is currently working on convincing the state government that there are loopholes in the policy of capturing and indiscriminately releasing leopards in the wild.