Vidya Athreya shares her field research and personal experience working as an ecologist in the Indian state of Maharashtra, focused on leopard ecology, conservation, and human-carnivore conflict. Around the world, people see big cats like leopards as dangerous and bloodthirsty, when really the primary threat to big cats is humans. In this piece, Athreya touches on the complex relationships humans have had with big cats since prehistory, and documents the surprising things she’s learned about the behavior, movements, and eating habits of the region’s leopards. She asks: Can humans and leopards coexist in shared landscapes?
Leopards were not only surviving but raising families in this agricultural landscape—and there was something about the way local people dealt with it that I could not fathom. I’d been trained to see the juxtaposition of large carnivores and people as a situation of imminent conflict. One day, early in my research in Akole, I drove with Ghule kaka (“kaka,” an honorific, means uncle), the farmer I was working with, to interview a woman whose goat had been killed by a leopard. Like a typical wildlife biologist, I asked her what problems she had with leopards. She brusquely replied that a particular leopard routinely came by a path in the hills, passed her house and went “that way.”
Later I asked Ghule kaka what I’d done to annoy her. “These people revere the leopard, and you’re asking her what problem her god gives her!” he replied. Nearby was a statue of Waghoba, a large cat deity that many people in the region have worshipped for at least half a century. I remember a pastoralist whose sheep was taken by a leopard. “The poor leopard had no prey in the forest,” he said. “What else could he eat? So he’s taken the sheep, and God will give me more.”
I’d started out as an arrogant young biologist convinced that we can resolve human-wildlife “conflict” only by understanding the animal involved. My experiences in Akole convinced me that it is humans who hold the key, and I soon got a chance to test that theory.