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.

Last year, a CCTV camera captured footage of a leopard entering a house in Mumbai through the open front door and, in just seconds, taking away the dog that was sleeping in the hallway.

In February, a panicked leopard in Meerut had almost the entire north Indian city of three million in a state of fear for days, closing markets and schools as the big cat mauled several people. Eventually, she disappeared.

In 2012, a leopard finding itself exposed on a busy street in the north-eastern city of Guwahati went on a panicked rampage, killing one person and severely mauling four others before it was tranquillised and relocated to a forest 120km away.

The big cat's basic instinct is to avoid people. In the Meerut and Guwahati cases, the leopards turned violent after people chased them and threw stones at them.

It is not only big cats that affect landscapes used by people. Dr Athreya's camera traps have shown a host of carnivores - leopards, smaller wild cats and hyenas - in rural environments with dense human populations. In recent years, tigers have also occasionally wandered far from protected forests in northern India, lurking near towns and villages and sowing fear and panic.

Wild elephants have wandered into cities as well, in India and Sri Lanka. Across much of South and South-east Asia, wild boars regularly emerge from surrounding forests to raid garbage in cities. Monkeys are a well-known problem - especially those that are wild but have also lost their fear of humans. The boars and monkeys can be destructive and dangerous.

In India, the conservation ethos has been a part of the fabric of society; there is space for all.

Well over 100 leopards are indeed killed every year, many by poachers. But with good protection, species multiply. And leopards and tigers, in particular, roam long distances and establish territories across many square kilometres. Animals have no concept of manmade boundaries and, when they are not systematically killed, will use available land.

But there remains an inordinate focus on rare episodes of conflict, which tap into primeval fear.

It is the bigger predators, such as big cats and wolves, which elicit the most atavistic fascination, and fear, in the hearts of people. "Great and terrible flesh-eating beasts have always shared landscape with humans," writes David Quammen in his 2003 book, Monster Of God. "The teeth of big predators, their claws, their ferocity and their hunger, were grim realities that could be eluded but not forgotten."

But cats like Lakshai prove that shared space is possible and tragedies are the exception, not the rule.

Most wild species inhabit something like a parallel universe to ours, and scientific studies only barely scratch the surface of our understanding of, say, phenomena such as birdsong or bird migration, or elephant and whale conversations.

Cats are perhaps one of the most intriguing examples, familiar yet enigmatic.

The universe of the big cat in particular only tenuously intersects with ours and, sometimes, as in the case of Akole, we don't even know it - and nobody is the worse for it.

nirmal@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 13 in The Straits Times.

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