Learn to share 'our' space

Learn to share 'our' space

BANGKOK - The densely clustered bright points on the map of Akole, a small town in the Indian state of Maharashtra, show where Lakshai lived and roamed.

Lakshai lived in the town, says researcher Vidya Athreya. But only those who were tracking her through the pings from her GPS collar knew she was there. The 20,000 people who live in Akole had absolutely no idea.

Lakshai was a full-grown female leopard, capable of killing a man.

The researchers, who had tranquillised her and fitted the light collar around her neck, tracked her for a whole year before the collar fell off.

During the time she lived in and around Akole, apart from one minor incident, she did not injure or kill a human being, and never allowed herself to be seen. She lived off the birds and dogs and pigs that are part of the feral scenery of most Indian towns.

And she was not unique. In the course of her research in the western Indian state, Dr Athreya, who works in India for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, has tranquillised and fitted GPS collars on six adult leopards - the source of much fear and anxiety when they cross paths with people. One of the leopards covered a distance of 120km over a few days in the dead of night, crossing open fields and highways, and passing soundlessly through villages and towns while people slept.

The phenomenon of the "urban carnivore" has emerged only in recent years, and is challenging our cosy notion that potentially dangerous wildlife is or should be restricted to wilderness areas - within parameters defined by people.

And while it is the violent events - when cornered leopards maul and kill people - that get the attention, the fact that many can live side by side with humans without incident points to the urgent need for more research on the phenomenon, to better educate people and better inform management decisions and emergency response.

This increasing incidence of wildlife in cities is happening because the cities are growing, but also because of successful wildlife conservation. Another reason is forest degradation, which thins out the food base of wild species.

"The urban carnivore in other countries appears to be a new phenomenon," says Dr Athreya. "And it is occurring in countries where humans have not shared space with these animals in the last 150 years. Today, the ethos has shifted from extermination to conservation."

It's not just happening in India. In north America, mountain lions are regularly sighted in urban settings in states such as Montana and California. In February, a mountain lion warning was issued for the Solano County hills, an area near San Francisco, after one of the leopard-sized cats was seen in an area frequented by hikers.

Last year, a mountain lion was seen in a carpark in Portola Valley, San Mateo, California. In 2010, police were summoned, and they shot a mountain lion which was roaming around carparks in Berkeley, California.

Mountain lion attacks on humans are rare - only around 50 in the last 100 years. But most of those attacks have taken place in the last 20 years - in urban or suburban habitats.

In India, which has a higher density of people - an average of 300 per square kilometre - there have been more incidents involving leo-pards.

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