At 10 am on a Sunday morning Kalama Devi, 54, encountered a leopard.
She only had a farm tool to defend herself when it turned on her and attacked her, she told CNN. "I held the leopard with my hands, it then bit my hand and then left it. Both my hands are in immense pain and I am not able to lift them up."
Unlike many others who have faced the same situation, Devi was lucky to survive. The leopard did not. CNN reported that these types of attacks have become more frequent in recent years.
Leopards, like many animals, are terrified of humans. They tend to run away when they hear someone approach. So why have so many of them attacked humans in the last decades? This is the question many scientists, historians and wildlife experts have been asking.
Many believe that habitat deterioration has been a key factor pushing leopards closer and closer to human dwellings.
“Historically leopards were found in much of South Asia,” Eric Strahorn, historian at the Florida Gulf Coast University, told TreeHugger. “Today they are found mostly in national parks and reserved forests. Their remaining habitat is in relatively remote areas like swamps and forests especially in the mountains.”
Pressure for increased agricultural land to feed India’s population of 1.24 billion and for more living space is slowly eating away at what is left of natural habitats. That affects not only the land on which leopards live, but the food they generally eat, like deer.
Some experts believe that as it gets harder for leopards to access food, they venture to populated areas, eating dogs and goats. These ventures can lead to unhappy encounters with humans.
“Stopping deforestation would be an ideal impractical solution,” Vanjulavalli Sridhar, from the Indian Forest Service, told us. “However, what is possible in a country like India is to expect tolerance out of people who cohabit with wildlife.”
Not everyone is satisfied with habitat loss as an explanation. Leopards have lived near humans for decades, so what would cause changes in behaviour?
“The leopard has the widest habitat tolerance and can survive in most types of forests, including also in human dominated space,” Jimmy Borah, at the India division of the World Wildlife Fund, told us. “I personally believe that as long as these animals are given space, they seldomly come in contact with humans.”
Vidya Athreya, from Conservation India, has been working on leopard-human interactions for more than ten years. She said there hasn’t been enough research to really understand why some leopards attack humans while others don’t. She is dissatisfied with previous explanations and argues that leopards only eat about one goat a week (about 52 a year) and that there is no shortage of goats or other livestock in India. As such, there should be no need for leopards to go after humans.
For Athreya, some of the leopard interventions that have been adopted in India are contributing to the problem. In many places, leopards found near human dwellings are captured and released in more forested areas – but the result is that there are more attacks in the new habitats. Athreya suggests that taking leopards out of the habitat they are accustomed to makes them become desperate and therefore more aggressive, especially since they are territorial animals.
“Unfortunately, the knowledge deficit on the issue has led to a proliferation of opinions that are blocking a resolution,” she wrote in The Hindu, a news organisation in India. “On the one hand, India is a land that values knowledge and we have sent satellites into space, have high-class research institutions that train scientists and students, and export our “brains” abroad. On the other, we still are at a complete loss to explain why a species behaves aggressively in some places whereas it is peaceful in others.”
Leopard attack in Maharashtra