About a month ago, I had the pleasure of talking about wildlife conservation with students and faculty from 4 LEAD schools in small towns in Maharashtra - LEAD School Akkalkot, LEAD School Karmala, LEAD School Kurduwadi and LEAD School Mangaon. The students were from Grades 5 to 7, and they amazed me with their knowledge, curiosity and enthusiasm for wildlife conservation in Africa, in Singapore (where I live) and ofcourse, in their own backyard - Maharashtra. While I started out talking about my experiences with rhino, elephant and cheetah conservation in Africa, we also talked about the success of Project Tiger, and closer home, to the issues around leopard sightings in urban India.
Perhaps, one of the most interesting and important parts of the presentation was the segment about human encroachment into leopard territory. As India has rapidly urbanized, the natural territory of leopards is dwindling with the development of human settlements in place of jungles. Unlike other wild cats, leopards are extremely versatile and can survive in human settlements. This often leads to leopards wandering into cities looking for prey at night. They are able to traverse the urban environment much better than most other wild cats, because they are very strong climbers (able to climb over human structures) and they are nocturnal hunters (when humans are typically asleep). Though leopards are usually not a threat to humans, with the conflict that naturally arises as they enter human dwellings, children and pets could be at risk and should be protected.
Maharashtra has many instances of leopards entering human dwellings and so we talked about how to handle an unexpected leopard encounter. Granted, I am no expert, but based on the research I did, here are some things you should do:
Make yourself as large as possible by standing tall and extending your arms. Leopards will not attack anything bigger than themselves, so this is key.
Do not run away, as cats have an instinct to chase.
Do not threaten the leopard, as the leopard may panic, and attack somebody.
Crowding around a leopard may also cause it to franticly attack, as it feels trapped and will look for desperate ways to break free.
Call the local animal welfare society, as they will help relocate the leopard back into natural territory
I believe that human encroachment on leopard territory is an overlooked issue. Not all issues regarding conservation revolve around poaching, as I discussed in my blog The Conservation Conversation, habitat loss can pose an even more serious threat to certain animals with large ranges, such as big cats.
One of the most successful experiments of peaceful co-existence of leopards and humans in India is in a small town near Jaipur called Jhalana. In Jhalana, the locals have learned to live with leopards and see them as an important part of their culture, heritage and even economy as they bring in tourism. This video documents this successful experiment.
One thing that I was struck by at LEAD school was how engaged the students were. They would ask many deep and thought provoking questions about a wide range of animal welfare issues - including my views on puppy farms in Singapore. At times, these students would be asking so many questions so fast, that I couldn't keep pace with them. I have even received a number of emails regarding their interest in conservation, and asking for ideas or advice on how to get started in making a difference. I optimistically hope that my presentation left an impact on these students, and they might one day, become conservationists themselves or make a positive contribution to the cause.
My talk with LEAD school was a wonderful experience. I was very nervous before I started my talk, because I wondered if the students would be able to relate to my story or even understand why my passion for wildlife conservation was important. But to my surprise, once we got started, there was so much interest in the discussion and I realized that even if we come from different schools and live in different countries, LEAD school students and I connected on our common love for animals and the planet. I am excited to do more presentations and I hope that by doing this, I will raise awareness for conservation.
To end, here is a sketch of a leopard I drew for Jonathan Sng, a pro photographer in Singapore.