Big Cats in Our Backyards:
Persistence of Large Carnivores in a Human Dominated Landscape in India
Protected areas are extremely important for the long term viability of biodiversity in a densely populated country like India where land is a scarce resource. However, protected areas cover only 5% of the land area in India and in the case of large carnivores that range widely, human use landscapes will function as important habitats required for gene flow to occur between protected areas. In this study, we used photographic capture recapture analysis to assess the density of large carnivores in a human-dominated agricultural landscape with density >300 people/km2 in western Maharashtra, India. We found evidence of a wide suite of wild carnivores inhabiting a cropland landscape devoid of wilderness and wild herbivore prey. Furthermore, the large carnivores; leopard (Panthera pardus) and striped hyaena (Hyaena hyaena) occurred at relatively high density of 4.8±1.2 (sd) adults/100 km2 and 5.03±1.3 (sd) adults/100 km2 respectively. This situation has never been reported before where 10 large carnivores/100 km2 are sharing space with dense human populations in a completely modified landscape. Human attacks by leopards were rare despite a potentially volatile situation considering that the leopard has been involved in serious conflict, including human deaths in adjoining areas. The results of our work push the frontiers of our understanding of the adaptability of both, humans and wildlife to each other’s presence. The results also highlight the urgent need to shift from a PA centric to a landscape level conservation approach, where issues are more complex, and the potential for conflict is also very high. It also highlights the need for a serious rethink of conservation policy, law and practice where the current management focus is restricted to wildlife inside Protected Areas.