In India, where people and wildlife often find themselves on each other’s doorstep, the public mindset towards nature can go three ways. It can blossom into a healthy respect and love for our beautiful wildlife, or it can result in a matter-of-fact ambivalence towards our wild neighbours. Occasionally, relations between people and wildlife go sour. Our country is home to incredible biodiversity, and also to a booming human population. Yet, an undercurrent of conservation, of tolerance and respect for nature, winds through our culture, sometimes more pronounced than at other times.
Given that today is World Wildlife Day 2018, a day when the public eye is drawn towards the plight of biodiversity across the globe, I choose to focus on the theme of this year – the plight of our big cats. The term ‘big cat’ was originally used to classify the four largest wild cats that roar – the tiger, the lion, the leopard, and the jaguar – but the list has been expanded to include the cheetah, the snow leopard, the clouded leopard, the puma, and the Sunda clouded leopard. India is home to five big cats – the tiger, the (Asiatic) lion, the leopard, the clouded leopard, and the snow leopard. This post covers two of our big cats that embody the essence of adaptability and coexistence between humans and wildlife.
Amidst the cars, buses, and people crowding India’s commercial capital, Mumbai, prowls a spotted feline – the leopard. The most widespread big cat in the world, the leopard is incredibly adaptable, setting up residence in dense jungles, grasslands, and even megacities. Yes, the leopard certainly does not hold back in its fight for survival. Found across the Indian subcontinent, leopards inhabit the edges of forests where they often are accused of stealing livestock from villages near protected areas. Indeed, the leopard is India’s least-loved cat because of its opportunistic hunting patterns. However, they have proven incredibly adaptable, even colonizing so-called inhospitable habitats within cities. In Mumbai, leopards have been spotted carrying off dogs and piglets around Sanjay Gandhi National Park, where about 40 of these cats reside. As development places added pressures on the edges of this park and squatters set up slums inside park boundaries, sacrosanct natural spaces are decreasing for wildlife in cities. Leopards have adapted to making their kills closer to human settlements across India. This, along with depredation of livestock, can result in human-leopard conflict and a negative media portrayal. But can we blame the leopard for its transgressions? After all, development has cleaved through the jungles where it used to thrive, and overgrazing by domestic livestock has dramatically reduced wild prey densities around the remaining pockets of forest. Poachers, too, hunt the leopard for its fur and claws, as it comes with less protection than the tiger, at least in India.
Leopards have proven their adaptability over and over again, and they are here to stay. But how can we learn to live alongside these dappled cats, especially when they share real estate in our cities? Well, awareness is the first step. Knowing about the ecology and behaviour of leopards can go a long way in cleaning up negative media portrayals and ensuring that we too adapt to living alongside these shy cats. We also must be aware of the effects of deforestation on these animals. By reducing the available forest cover that they utilize as habitat, we are forcing the leopard into closer contact with human settlements. By selectively avoiding forest patches in our zeal for development, we can prevent escalating conflict with leopards and simultaneously preserve the forests that provide us with the oxygen we require to survive.
In a small pocket of semi-arid forest in the western state of Gujarat lives the last remaining population of the Asiatic lion. A distinct subspecies of the African lion, the Asiatic lion was once widespread across mainland Asia. As is the case with its other relatives, the lion too was hunted from its range, until only 12 Asiatic lions were left in the world a little over 100 years ago. The then-ruler of Junagadh, Nawab Mohammad Rasool Khanji II, declared the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary (now Gir National Park) to be a protected area. Even today, Gir is the last place on earth where the Asiatic lion can be found, after the Government of India established the Asiatic lion sanctuary in this forest. But Gujarat has been kind to its lions, who live peacefully alongside the many villages in and around the national park. Livestock depredation is common here, but the people are more open-minded towards the big cats, citing a lack of natural prey and a high human population as valid reasons for the lions to turn to cattle and goats. It is common to see a lioness watching her cubs frolic alongside children in Gir. In 2015, there were 525 lions recorded in Gir, in an area of 1,412 sq. km. An impressive statistic, and a testament to the tolerance shown by the people living alongside this king of beasts.
This is a conservation lesson that the rest of India ought to adopt – a mindset of tolerance, respect, and even affection towards the wildlife with which we share our land. In today’s world of shrinking forests and a still-growing human population, the Asiatic lion cannot persist in Gir alone; it requires more space than this forest affords it. Yet politics have refused to let Gujarat part with its lions, reducing this king of beasts to no more than a commodity to be coveted and owned. Will we see a change in this mindset during our lifetime, or, more hauntingly, during the lifetime of this species on our crowded planet? Will the lion be given the space it needs to make a comeback?
India, the land of 1.5 billion people, still has space for its wildlife, provided we Indians acknowledge that this land belongs not just to Homo sapiens but also to the myriad of species that are forced to fight for survival every day. The sun is setting on World Wildlife Day 2018 in India as I write these words. But we cannot allow the sun to set upon our wildlife. They are as much a part of our heritage as our religions, our customs, our values, and our ideals. Our wildlife and nature make us all the more rich in the eyes of the world. As we head forward into an era of development and digital advancement, let us not leave our natural heritage behind to fade into the shadows.
Life, once lost, cannot be brought back.
**Photo credits for the featured image go to Nikit Surve, who works on leopard conservation in Mumbai (thanks Nikit for all that you do!)