Wildlife biologist and conservationist Sanjay Gubbi on why there’s little understanding about leopards in India

Wildlife biologist and conservationist Sanjay Gubbi on why there’s little understanding about leopards in India

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In an interview with FP, Gubbi discusses learnings from his research work, his new book Leopard Diaries, threats to leopards like poaching and habitat loss, and what readers interested in leopards — or even wildlife in general — can do to further conservation goals.

The Indian leopard is one of the country’s five Big Cat species, the others being the Royal Bengal tiger, the Asiatic lion, the Snow Leopard and the Indo-Chinese Clouded leopard. Despite the acclaim for their charisma, we hear of and know very less about leopards — be it the Indian leopard, the Snow Leopard or the Indo-Chinese Clouded leopard.

“How big is a tiger’s home range? How many tigers are there? These questions are easily answered when it comes to tigers. But replace ‘tigers’ with ‘leopards’ and the answers become scanty,” says Sanjay Gubbi in a new book titled Leopard Diaries: The Rosette in India. The book was released on 15 March 2021.

Gubbi is a Karnataka-based wildlife biologist and conservationist. In the book, he explains leopard nitty-gritty with field observations spanning 10 years. The observations are largely from the Kaveri-MM Hills-BR Hills-Bannerghatta landscape in Karnataka, which also includes areas bordering Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Smaller species like the rusty-spotted cat, chinkara, brown mongoose and honey badgers also make endearing cameo appearances in these leopard-focussed studies. And all the field narratives are interspersed with literature from other countries that hold healthy leopard populations, like those in Africa.

The book details the behaviour, diet, mating patterns and other biological traits of the Indian leopard. It also notes how these leopards are uniquely adaptive. They are found in a range of landscapes like rocky outcrops, forests, deserts — both hot and cold, and human-dominated landscapes like cities and agricultural fields. They can survive on a variety of meals like gaur, nilgai, wild boar, chital, sambar and small-sized treats like hares.

There are also intriguing references to black and pink panthers. Yes, these actually exist. Though popular culture (Bagheera, and the Pink Panther series) popularised these wildlife species, they didn’t imagine them. Both of these are leopards with pigment variations.

In an interview with FP, Gubbi talks about learnings from his research work, his book, threats to leopards like poaching and habitat loss, and what readers interested in leopards — or even wildlife in general — can do to further conservation goals. Edited excerpts:

What about leopards made you want to focus on the species for your long term work?

There is very little understanding about leopards in India. Parallels are drawn from tigers and used to define leopards. I grew up in leopard country [Tumkur district in Karnataka] and this cat has always fascinated me. Although India houses one of the largest populations of wild leopards in the world and it holds over 77 percent of the extant range of the subspecies Panthera pardus fusca [scientific name of the Indian leopard] literature about this cat has accumulated at a surprisingly slow pace. Less than 15 percent of the scientific literature published on leopards comes from India. It’s worse in popular format where writing on leopards, even to this day, is dominated by ‘shikaar’ literature; the acclaimed science and nature writer David Quammen calls such genre of literature as ‘marketing of zoological melodrama’ and ‘predator pornography’.

Wildlife biologist and conservationist Sanjay Gubbi on why theres little understanding about leopards in India

Sanjay Gubbi explains leopard nitty-gritty with field observations spanning 10 years

Why and for whom did you write this book and how long did it take?

If we need to find more support for wildlife conservation, including leopards, it should reach the general public, policymakers, media, and social influencers. Besides, we need to get the attention of young conservation enthusiasts who are being misguided by ‘soap opera’ and ‘reality show’ kinds of conservation activities. I hope the three years I put into authoring this book will help achieve support for conservation in whatever little manner possible.

Apex predators like tigers, lions and leopards shape and maintain landscapes. The book closely looks at not only leopard biology but ecology too. This mix of biology and ecology seems crucial, especially given how wildlife habitat is usually overshadowed in news headlines by wildlife species, tigers and elephants in particular. Your comments?

Without understanding wildlife habitats and the ecosystem, species conservation will be fraught with irreparable blunders. We have already seen it with the loss of habitat specialist species such as the great Indian bustard, Bengal florican, Indian wolf and others. We do not know how many smaller species we may have lost without even noticing their demise. Hence understanding the relationships between the focal species and the environment it survives in is critical. Similarly, if a political leader or society questions the necessity to save species, we need to have rational answers beyond emotional arguments.

Given that human-leopard conflict is increasing at an alarming rate, it seems like mainstreaming leopard knowledge — both among rural and urban folk — is paramount to ensuring the species’ survival. Do you think ignorance or misinformation about leopards hinders conservation, specifically in aspects like conflict?

It will be impossible to conserve wildlife without bringing conflict to tolerable limits. One of the avenues to achieve it is by building awareness about leopards and finding ways to mitigate conflict in communities that are directly affected by conflict. A popular narrative has been floated that leopards do extremely well in man-made habitats such as sugarcane and maize fields. Though leopards are found in such temporary habitats, research shows that they are no substitute for natural habitats, and these populations are not sustainable in the longer-term due to various reasons, including high levels of human-leopard conflict. Even though such popular narratives sound very attractive, we need to be careful while promoting them as they can ultimately have significant negative impacts on leopards.

In the chapter ‘Following the Cats’, you mention that Big Cat biologists, specifically including those studying leopards, are as territorial as the animals. And how this combines with media propensity to be the judge, jury and executioner and turns into debilitating toxicity. In one case, this is what led you to abandon your work on radio collaring leopards.

So while leopards are still being captured and translocated due to conflict, such translocations are not being monitored and we have no idea what happens to translocated leopards. Ultimately, conservation loses. People lose too because conflict is not dealt with in the wholesome manner that it should. Your comments?

Wildlife biology and research, especially on large cats, is not as rosy as it looks. It’s riddled with hegemony, jealousy and one-upmanship. Unfortunately, Big Cat biologists ignore the fact that these traits impact conservation and even the species they are working on. Rather than working collaboratively, wildlife biology and conservation is a very fractured field.

Could you elaborate on the major threats that leopards in India face today? Is there anything that you wish the readers of your book could do about these threats?

Habitat loss, poaching of prey species especially outside protected areas, human-leopard conflict, mortality due to vehicular collisions and snares, poaching of leopards for their body parts are some of the serious threats leopards face in India. Increasing awareness about leopard conservation, being cautious while driving through leopard habitats, fighting issues of leopard habitat loss, carrying out awareness programs, forming leopard conservation groups in urban areas where these big cats are found on the periphery of cities and towns could be some of the activities readers can take up.

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