Ra­jasthan has taken a wel­come step in leop­ard con­ser­va­tion by be­com­ing the first state in In­dia to launch a project that aims to pro­tect the spot­ted fe­line by mit­i­gat­ing con­flicts with hu­mans and con­trol­ling poach­ing.

Marwar - - In Focus - Text Sneha Ma­hale

It shares its ter­ri­tory with the tiger in 17 states. Its range ex­tends across In­dia—from trop­i­cal rain­forests and alpine conif­er­ous forests to dry shrubs and grass­lands. Yet, de­spite its much-ad­mired ca­pa­bil­ity to sur­vive across a wide range of habi­tats, on March 8, Ra­jasthan be­came the first state in the coun­try to launch a project to con­serve leop­ards by im­prov­ing their prey base, mit­i­gat­ing con­flicts with hu­mans and con­trol­ling poach­ing. A sum of ` 7 crore was set aside for Project Leop­ard.

In­ci­den­tally, the spot­ted cat has been in­stru­men­tal in boost­ing tourism in the state. Leop­ard sa­faris are a ma­jor at­trac­tion in the Jha­lana For­est Re­serve near Jaipur, in the Jawai re­gion of the Pali district and even the Sariska Tiger Re­serve, where it now hogs the lime­light with the tiger. At the same time, the leop­ard re­mains pro­tected un­der Sched­ule I of the Wildlife Pro­tec­tion Act, 1972, and is listed as ‘Vul­ner­a­ble’ on the IUCN Red List. A 2015 wildlife cen­sus puts their num­ber in the state at 434, and as many as 20 leop­ards have re­port­edly been killed be­tween 2014 and 2016 in ac­ci­dents or due to an­i­mal-hu­man con­flict. This makes its tryst with Ra­jasthan an unusual one.

Wide range

His­tor­i­cally, be­cause of their abil­ity to adapt to dif­fer­ent habi­tats, leop­ards have in­hab­ited the en­tire In­dian sub­con­ti­nent and con­tinue to do so, de­spite the huge man-made pres­sures and habi­tat frag­men­ta­tion.

Elu­sive, noc­tur­nal and shy, leop­ards feed on smaller species of her­bi­vores found in their range such as the chi­tal, hog deer and wild boar. “How­ever, they are also known to sur­vive on small prey such as do­mes­tic dogs, goats and pigs in the ab­sence of large wild prey, partly be­cause of their abil­ity to in­habit a va­ri­ety of forested and de­graded habi­tat,” elab­o­rates Atula Gupta, founder and edi­tor of www. in­di­asen­dan­gered.com. It is also known to carry its prey up on trees, es­pe­cially in ar­eas where it shares its habi­tat with other large cats, es­pe­cially the tiger. Leop­ards usu­ally mate through­out the year, pro­duc­ing a lit­ter of two to three cubs. The cubs stay with the mother for about two years, when they learn to hunt by fol­low­ing and watch­ing the mother.

Rise of tourism

In Ra­jasthan, the leop­ard can be found across a wide range of pro­tected and un­pro­tected ar­eas, the desert re­gion be­ing a no­table ex­cep­tion. “Any­one in­ter­ested in a big cat in In­dia plans to see the tiger. It is only in re­cent years that the leop­ard has come into the lime­light. How­ever, it is a shy an­i­mal and sight­ings are al­most im­pos­si­ble dur­ing day­time. But in some

places such as Bera, there is al­most 98-99 per cent chance of a sight­ing dur­ing a three-hour sa­fari. This adds to the pop­u­lar­ity of cer­tain leop­ard sa­faris in Ra­jasthan,” says Vinod Ku­mar Goel, a wildlife photographer who has been click­ing the leop­ard since 2013.

The sud­den pop­u­lar­ity of the spot­ted fe­line has led to the ad­vent of leop­ard tourism, an op­por­tu­nity that the lo­cals and the gov­ern­ment have cashed in on across the state. “Leop­ards are found in the same re­serves as tigers, so peo­ple who can’t spot a tiger can be of­fered the ad­di­tional lure of a leop­ard sa­fari. Also, for­est re­serves that were never too pop­u­lar, even if within pro­tected ar­eas—such as the Bala Quila in the Sariska zone—are now gain­ing tourist traf­fic be­cause they are now pro­moted as leop­ard sight­ing des­ti­na­tions,” elu­ci­dates Gupta. Ad­di­tion­ally, ar­eas with­out a tag of ‘pro­tected re­serve’ are be­ing taken ad­van­tage of by those want­ing to make a quick buck out of un­reg­u­lated tourism.

Ob­sta­cles ahead

To­day, com­mon threats fac­ing the leop­ard in In­dia are in­creas­ing con­flict with hu­mans, poach­ing for il­le­gal trade in body parts and loss of habi­tat. Leop­ards also die due to ac­ci­dents on roads pass­ing through and around pro­tected ar­eas. Pres­sure is ad­di­tion­ally ex­erted on pro­tected ar­eas by graz­ing live­stock, ex­trac­tion of fod­der, log­ging, pro­cure­ment of non-tim­ber for­est prod­ucts and il­le­gal oc­cu­pa­tion. These fac­tors also lead to hu­man-an­i­mal con­flict in­side forests.

How­ever, the big­gest emerg­ing dan­ger is un­reg­u­lated tourist ac­tiv­ity in un­pro­tected ar­eas. Ram­pant con­struc­tion and unau­tho­rised tourist ac­tiv­i­ties are to­day cre­at­ing a sit­u­a­tion where the al­ready shy leop­ard is be­ing forced to leave its habi­tat in search of a more peace­ful existence, thus in­creas­ing the chance of a man-an­i­mal con­flict. In Ra­jasthan in par­tic­u­lar, where pri­vate leop­ard tourism mod­els are in place, this prob­lem is al­ready a cause for alarm.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists also cite other con­cerns when it comes to the pro­tec­tion of the spot­ted cat. A ma­jor ob­sta­cle they face is keep­ing tabs on its num­bers in the coun­try. In­dia’s first of­fi­cial leop­ard cen­sus was con­ducted in 2015 along­side a tiger cen­sus. It showed that In­dia’s leop­ard pop­u­la­tion was around 7,910 in pro­tected tiger re­serves, where the cen­sus was con­ducted. Yad­ven­dradev V Jhala, who was the lead sci­en­tist of the cen­sus, how­ever, said that the num­ber could eas­ily be around 12,000 to 14,000, if the leop­ards liv­ing in un­pro­tected ar­eas were counted too. “The state of Ra­jasthan too has un­pro­tected ar­eas that do not fall un­der the cat­e­gory of na­tional park or sanc­tu­ary and yet have a high den­sity of leop­ards. This makes the task of con­ser­va­tion a tad more dif­fi­cult,” says Goel.

Counter plan­ning

But all is not lost yet. Ex­perts be­lieve that Project Leop­ard, which has been ini­ti­ated by the Ra­jasthan gov­ern­ment, is a wel­come first step in pro­tect­ing the beau­ti­ful species. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port pub­lished in The Hin­dus­tan Times, Project Leop­ard will run in eight sanc­tu­ar­ies—Jaisamand Sanc­tu­ary in Udaipur, Bassi Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary in Chit­tor­garh, Sher­garh Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary in Baran, Kumb­hal­garh Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary-Todgarh Raoli Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary (stretches from Ajmer to Udaipur), Mount Abu Sanc­tu­ary-Sun­damata Con­ser­va­tion Re­serve (Sirohi and Jalore), Jha­lana Aa­m­a­garh Con­ser­va­tion Re­serve in Jaipur, Jawai Con­ser­va­tion Re­serve in Pali and Khetri Ban­syal Con­ser­va­tion Re­serve in Jhunjhunu. These sanc­tu­ar­ies are spread across 1926.80 square kilo­me­tres.

Project ob­jec­tives in­clude mit­i­gat­ing man-leop­ard con­flicts, con­serv­ing the leop­ard pop­u­la­tion by coun­ter­ing the threats the predator faces and cre­at­ing good­will be­tween lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and leop­ards. Con­ser­va­tion­ists also hope that the project will help pro­tect bears, lesser cats, other smaller mam­mals and prey species that do not get their due share of the lime­light.

There are other rec­om­men­da­tions too. Ex­perts ad­vo­cate pro­vid­ing train­ing and jobs to lo­cals around pro­tected ar­eas and within un­pro­tected ar­eas so that they con­tinue to be pro­tec­tors of the land. This will en­sure that both the habi­tat and the an­i­mal are kept out of harm’s way by out­siders, who see tourism as a suc­ces­sive busi­ness mo­d­ule.

That apart, it is very im­por­tant for the gov­ern­ment to in­ter­vene and frame rules and reg­u­la­tions with re­gard to tourism be­fore it is too late. “It will be bet­ter for tourism if lo­cals are trained in sim­ple wildlife bi­ol­ogy and taught to speak English, which is pre­ferred by most tourists,” says Gupta. This en­sures that they re­main in­vested as stake­hold­ers in the con­ser­va­tion of the leop­ard.

Stay­ing put

Con­ser­va­tion of the species is not a utopian dream. Ex­perts point to the unique ex­am­ple of the Jawai re­gion, which is home to an ar­ray of wildlife that peace­fully co­ex­ists with hu­mans. Here, lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties have pro­tected the leop­ard, per­ceived to be the guardian of all holy sites and tem­ples found on the rocky out­crops of the Araval­lis. Sur­pris­ingly, there have been no re­ports of man­an­i­mal con­flict em­a­nat­ing from the re­gion.

Gupta signs off by say­ing, “Ra­jasthan’s Project Leop­ard is a wel­come move that other states should fol­low. Hope­fully, it will make peo­ple aware of how to peace­fully co­ex­ist with leop­ards, as well as deal with sit­u­a­tions where the an­i­mal strays into hu­man habi­tats. It will also en­sure that the prey base of the leop­ard is in­creased. It is what the an­i­mal ul­ti­mately needs to stay put in its own home.”

Top: A Ben­gal tiger at Ran­tham­bore Na­tional Park

Left: A hyena in Bera, Ra­jasthan Be­low: A leop­ard car­ries its prey up a tree

Left: A leop­ard with her cub in Bera, Ra­jasthan

Top: Tourists tak­ing a jeep sa­fari in Ra­jasthan’s Ran­tham­bore Na­tional Park

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