Leopards are incredibly adaptable species which allows them to persist alongside people in many landscapes across India. In our West Bengal project site, we started our studies on the feeding behaviour of leopard, especially its diet selection. We analyzed over 70 scat (faeces) samples and found out that majority (~75%) of the leopard diet in the region consists of livestock. While this is good news for the leopards, it is bad news for the livestock owners in the region who are often extremely poor and heavily dependent on livestock to supplement their income. We also estimated wild and domestic prey numbers available to the leopard in the region and we found out the domestic prey is seven times more abundant than wild prey which explains its high usage by leopards. It means leopards are not favouring domestic prey over wild ones, they are simply eating what is more commonly available. The paper based on the study can be downloaded from our 'Resources' section.
We wondered how leopards are able to persist in the tea-estates where a lot of people work and live and where chance of encountering people is so high. We knew that leopards are extremely shy animals like most cats and yet they are sharing space with people on a daily basis! We used sign surveys across multiple habitat types (tea-plantations, forests, agriculture areas) coupled with Species Distrbution Models (SDMs) to understand what factors determine leopard habitat-selection in the region. Not surprisingly, we found that tea-bushes were favouring leopard presence as the bushes accorded cover to the animals to hide during the day and escape detection by people. Surprisingly, we also found out that the leopards are avoiding the human settlements which explains how they are able to share space with people in the same landscape. The paper based on the study can be downloaded from our 'Resources' section.
Identifying Critical Leopard Habitats
We are currently in the process of identifying critical areas in the landscape which will be vital for leopard conservation in the long term. These areas are identified based on surveys of leopard presence across a 1200 sq km tea-plantation dominated landscape. We are also working towards minimizing current or future conflicts that arise due to shared spaces between people and leopards. We also use remote camera traps to estimate leopard numbers and monitor their populations. Did you know that leopards have unique markings called rosettes, just like our fingerprints? and we use these marking to identify the leopards from their images. Check out our female leopard 'Lokkhi' with her new born cub in the 'Photo Gallery' section.
Estimating Leopard Numbers in tea-plantations
We have estimated baseline leopard populations for the first time ever in a tea-plantation landscape. This is only the second study in India on leopard populations entirely outside protected forests such as National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Reserve Forests. We sampled over 200 sq. km. of tea-plantations using remote camera traps. We obtained more than 36000 images in the 3-month survey! We captured 19000 images of people, 800 images fo cattle, 691 images of Indian Hare, 72 elephant images, 64 jungle cat images, 3 leopard cat images and 81 leopard images. We identified 24 individuals including two sub-adults. Our estimates indicate the presence of 15 leopards per 100 sq. km. of this tea-plantation landscape. Guess what? these numbers are higher than leopard numbers within the National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries in the region.
Leopard Ranging and Behaviour
We are stoked to announce that we have collared our first-ever tea-garden leopard. The big adult male weighing in at 60 kg was captured from an army cantonment in the region. Before releasing him to the wild, the West Bengal Forest Department installed a VHF Collar. The Co-existence project was entrusted with the responsibility of tracking the leopard on a regular basis. Even though tracking leopards in a human-use landscape with VHF collars is an arduous task due to heavy interference from other sources of high-frequency waves, our team has been successful in locating him on multiple occasions. We hope to learn vital insights on the behaviour of the animal and understand how these animals are able to co-occur with humans without being detected.