Maharashtra saw highest leopard deaths in 5 years in 2020

The state saw 159 leopard deaths between January and November 2020, the highest in at least five years, and the decade’s highest human kills in leopard attacks (23), according to the forest department data.

According to data from the office of the state’s principal chief conservator of forest (PCCF-wildlife), of the 159 deaths, 80 were natural, 64 were accidents (road accidents, train accidents, falling in open wells, and hunting by dogs), two were electrocuted, and 13 were poached. Last year, 110 leopard deaths were recorded in Maharashtra – 66 natural, 35 accidents, and nine poaching cases. There were 88 deaths in 2018 (54 natural, 27 accidents, seven poached), 86 deaths in 2017 (55 natural, 21 accidents, nine poaching and one electrocution), and 89 in 2016 (53 natural, 29 accidental, and seven poaching cases).

Meanwhile, prior to 2020, 17 human kills by leopards were reported in 2013, followed by 14 in 2011, 2015 and 2017. Last year, 12 people were killed in leopard attacks.

“Increasing leopard deaths and kills by the animal in 2020 is a result of considerable rise in their population,” said Nitin Kakodkar, PCCF (wildlife), Maharashtra, adding, “While there is no population estimation study so far, cases are being reported from across the state as the animals are spread all over (rural, urban, and agricultural fields, forests). While people have learnt to live with this animal in most areas, leopards, too, are adaptable to threats around them. These factors have allowed their numbers to rise.”

Kakodkar said there was a rise in poaching incidents this year too, owing to isolated cases in different parts of Maharashtra during the lockdown.

The state forest department plans to conduct a population estimation exercise of leopards over the next two years. The forest department on Sunday said an example of the rise in population was witnessed at Sangareshwar sanctuary in Sangli (one of the smallest sanctuaries in Maharashtra) where leopard sighting was observed for the first time.

“We have planned to go in for a sampling-based approach for all regions. While leopard numbers seem to be most in western Maharashtra, we have identified hotspots where most leopard deaths or human kills have been reported. They include Nashik, Nagar, parts of Marathwada, especially Aurangabad, Ratnagiri, and the entire sugarcane belt of Pune, Kolhapur, Sangli, north Maharashtra and Marathwada,” said Kakodkar.

Delhi-based Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) estimates the number of leopard deaths in Maharashtra has been the highest in at least 10 years with 30 deaths in 2010, 34 in 2011, 43 in 2012, 36 in 2013, 41 in 2014, and 46 in 2015. WPSI data also showed Maharashtra had recorded 22 leopard kills in road accidents in 2018, 19 kills in road accidents and three in train accidents in 2019, and 19 road accidents and one train accident in 2020.

“Fragmented forests and more linear infrastructure planned outside forests have worsened the situation in Maharashtra,” said Tito Joseph, programme coordinator, WPSI.

Independent experts said there was a need for a mitigation focused approach to address the issue. “We really do not know what is happening on ground at the moment, and the cases being reported are a fraction of what they actually may be. With so many leopards, the number of human deaths is currently low across Maharashtra. For years, in areas like Nashik and Aurangabad, there has not been a systematic conflict resolution programme. An example of a successful approach is Mumbai, where people and leopards have learnt to live in co-existence and there have been absolutely no cases of human deaths. Thus, such a model carried out after stakeholder engagement needs to be replicated through a well-drafted program across hotspots identified by the department,” said noted human-leopard conflict expert Vidya Athreya, wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society-India.

Meanwhile, scientist from Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, Bilal Habib is presently undertaking a four-year study at the Junnar landscape (Pune) where a population estimation exercise will be done to understand the behavior of animals, how they hunt and how they use the human-dominated landscape. Ten leopards would be radio-collared under this exercise.

“There is a need to think about strategies as soon as these numbers (deaths) start pushing up. We may need to think of a committee constituted to solve the tiger problem in Chandrapur district, for leopards as well. The focus should be on areas where leopards are actively breeding. Studies like ours at Junnar may help develop basic understanding of the issue and can be replicated across other problem areas in the state,” said Habib.

The recent deaths

Recent leopard deaths included a three-to-four-year-old pregnant leopard (carrying three unborn cubs) in a road accident on the Western Express Highway near Kashimira, Mira Road last Sunday. Another leopard was killed in a road accident on Saturday near Satara on the National Highway 4 that connects Pune and Bengaluru. “I will be directing local authorities to identify problem areas within their jurisdiction where mitigation measures are needed,” said Kakodkar, adding, “The spurt in population is causing more road and train accidents. On the main roads like Ghodbunder, there is a need for more speed breakers, signages, and similar mitigation measures that are being worked out with Sanjay Gandhi National Park forest staff.”

Last week, two human deaths (a father and a son) killed in leopard attacks were reported from Aurangabad and another person killed prior to that from Jalna. Earlier this year, around 20 leopards were trapped along a 12-km stretch along the Darna River (between Sinnar and Eklahare) where leopard numbers had risen significantly leading to a surge in conflict with five deaths and five serious injuries reported since December 2019. “The entire sugarcane belt provides a lot of water, it provides good prey density, and due to long term harvesting, it provides a lot of security to these carnivores. It is a safe haven for leopards. That is the reason, leopard numbers have grown tremendously. The houses in this belt are not separated from the sugarcane fields. There are instances of farmers walking out of their house and being face to face with leopards leading to conflict. Apart from awareness not much is possible in these areas,” said Kakodkar.

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