Green Minute News

For decades now, people have been sharing space with leopards in Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh, India. There are no protected forests in the district of Hamirpur and the entire leopard population resides in multi‐use landscapes.

Learning to live with leopards and understanding their behavior, residents say the big cats are scared of humans and usually have justification for attacking humans when people interfere with it. Further, they recognized that leopards are not just a bloodthirsty predator out to kill people but had rules or patterns to their behavior. With the leopard being an integral part of their lives, people were in the habit of constantly and actively negotiating with them to minimize their loss of livestock.

These were the findings of researchers from Wildlife Conservation Society, India, Himachal Pradesh Forest Department and NINA, Norway and the studies were done by Dhee, Vidya Athreya, John D. C. Linnell, Shweta Sivakumar and Sat Pal Dhiman.

Scientists also found that leopards were regarded as the vehicle of the Goddess (Devi Maa) that is commonly worshipped in Himachal Pradesh. “Further, the belief of leopards as protectors is profound, and it provides a positive attribute to the species. Such beliefs could lead to people considering leopards as being not only acceptable but also wanted and appealing in their landscape.”

Leopards are seen as thinking beings, possessing qualities such as conscious thought, self and kinship that are usually attributed only to humans. “In Hamirpur, humans and leopards have been sharing space since decades despite it being a rural landscape outside protected areas. Perhaps it is because of this long history of living alongside one another that the human-leopard relationship in the landscape is so complex, dynamic and multifaceted,” said Dhee, first author of the study.

The scientific study revealed people’s description of leopards and their behavior arose out of knowledge that was based on experience as well as being culturally informed. In fact, they shared several myths and stories featuring leopards, including a contemporary conspiracy theory about the release of ‘domesticated’ leopards by the government into the surrounding landscape. 

Many of them believe that the leopards presently seen in their surroundings are not the wild leopards they have been sharing the landscape with for decades and have learnt about through myths and stories. Instead, they believe that they are domesticated leopards and the forest department has released to protect the forested areas from human intrusion.

The conspiracy theory also brought to light the human-human tensions between stakeholders and exemplified a way in which human-animal dynamics are affected by human-human conflicts. This study illustrates the significance of local issues in moulding the relationship between man-animal within shared landscapes, consequently underlining the shortcomings of looking at such things only through the aspects of ecology or socio-economics.

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