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Whose cup of tea is it – ours or leopards’?

Photo : Purabi Deshpande / Research Matters

Tasseography, the art of fortune telling with tea leaves from the north eastern parts of India, might reveal the ochre-yellow rosseted coat of a leopard. What do leopards and tea have in common, you ask? A lot, according to a recent study in the Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal by Mr. Aritra Kshettry and team from the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bengaluru.

The British brought to India their love for tea and planted plantations across north-east India and Assam and Darjeeling tea are renowned even today.  But what was here before the tea plantations? “The landscape was once predominated by tropical semi-evergreen and moist deciduous vegetation, with wildlife such as the one-horned rhinoceros, Asian elephant, gaur and the leopard. It soon became a mosaic of plantations, fragmented forest patches, agricultural fields and human settlements”, says Mr. Kshettry, the lead researcher of the study published in the journal PLOS One.

The fact that these tea growing regions were once dense forests is the reason behind the increasing close encounters between humans and animals, especially leopards, escalating into conflict situations. “The home range of leopards can average about 25 sq km, overlapping across these land-use types and can even be completely ensconced within plantations. Since these man-made boundaries are lost upon animals, the plantations become a part of their habitat, making the leopard at home, both within the forest patches as well as the plantations”, opines Mr. Kshettry.

The current study looked at records for 7 years (2009-2016) over 530 sq km covering two protected areas (Gorumara National Park and  Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary), reserve forests, plantations and agricultural lands to investigate the spatial and temporal patterns of leopard encounters in this region. The records were input into a GIS (Geographic Information System) software to identify hotspots of leopard attacks and their frequency. The researchers also tested if translocation of leopards in the study area had any relationship with human-leopard interactions.

Explaining the study design, Mr. Kshettry mentions how understanding the probability of occurrence of leopards, in conjunction with the their direct encounters with humans, can help establish if the mere presence of leopards could act as a strong predictor for conflict. The researchers conducted sign surveys to understand the pattern of habitat use of leopards. They used  PRESENCE, a computational model that provides robust estimates of the probabilities of leopard occurrence in a given area.

Variables influencing habitat use included ground vegetation (influences sign detectability), encounter rates for wild prey, domestic prey and humans. Other factors like distance to forest from the plantations, ground vegetation cover, and house density were obtained from remotely sensed data.

The study showed that all of the 171 leopard encounters reported in the area during the study period were non-fatal, indicating that these attacks were more defensive than predatory in nature. Most (83) were clustered within tea plantations, between January and May, when extensive cleaning and maintenance works in the plantations were undertaken. They occurred between 10am – 2pm with more men being attacked than women. This was perhaps because men worked longer hours in smaller groups (engaged in pruning and irrigation) than women who worked in larger groups (involved in fodder and driftwood collection).

The researchers found that a mere presence of a leopard did not indicate the imminence of an attack. The probability of a leopard using any site in the study area was found to be high at 75%, indicating a ubiquitous presence of leopards. It was also found that leopards did not prefer to venture closer to human settlements. The relationship of direct encounters between leopard and humans with translocation of leopards was weak, indicating that the dataset was not adequate to draw strong connections between the two. Mr. Kshettry believes larger datasets of capture releases are necessary to understand translocation correlation with leopard conflicts.

The British might be long gone, but this complex landscape with its large carnivore, the leopard is here to stay, along with the conflicts of shared spaces. It is the need of the hour to undertake further studies for conflict mitigation strategies that allow both man and animal to have their cup of tea.