Kolkata: Outside their protected areas, leopards often reside in human habitats, but avoid encounters with people, a new study shows.
Some researchers radio-collared five leopards in Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh, for the first time in India, and recorded their movement patterns in human-dominated areas outside their protected habitat.
It was found that they are not 'stray' or 'conflict' animals, but residents in human-dominated areas, said Vidya Athreya of Wildlife Conservation Society.
Moreover, two of the females even gave birth to cubs during the course of the study, confirming their residence.
A number of cases of man-animal conflict involving leopards, hit by habitat loss, have been reported from all over the country.
The study, however, found that the big cats applied tactics to avoid encountering people, despite dependence on their resources.
Firstly, the animals mostly moved at night, which timed perfectly with low human activity. They also spent more time closer to homes, less than 25 metre in many location recordings, at night, than during the day.
"This gave them an access to people's livestock, and yet kept them safe from people," Athreya explained.
Scientists from Norway, Asian Nature Conservation Foundation and experts from the forest departments of Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra took part in this study.
The activities of the leopards were monitored from the time of their release for up to a year recording their behaviour - including strategies they adopt to avoid direct contact with people.
Two of them, which were translocated, occupied bigger home ranges (42 km and 65 km), including one in the outskirts of Mumbai.
The other three which were released near the site of capture lived in areas with highest human densities, but occupied smallest home ranges (8-15 sq km) ever recorded for leopards anywhere.
"The home ranges of the three animals are comparable to those in highly-productive protected areas with a very good prey density," said Athreya adding that this indicates food sources associated with humans (domestic animals) support these big cats.
Despite living in close proximity to humans and even being dependent on their resources, none of the leopards were involved in human deaths during capture or following release.
The researchers stress that the presence of wild carnivores like leopards in human use landscapes in India need to be dealt with proactive mitigation measures.
"There is a need for more studies on ecology of wildlife that share space with humans in India, so that better understanding can feed into better policy. Efforts should be put into preventing losses to people rather than react after losses have been incurred. The management policy should also work towards retaining the acceptance and tolerance of the local people," the scientists said.