- A study conducted in Nepal suggests that adopting predator-proofing practices for livestock can potentially reduce human-leopard conflicts and benefit both humans and leopards.
- The study identified three main drivers of leopard attacks on humans: livestock and human densities, as well as rugged terrain, and suggested measures to address these factors at the municipal level.
- Predator-proofing husbandry practices, regular monitoring of hotspot areas for leopard presence and raising awareness about potential leopard attacks were proposed as potential solutions to mitigate human-leopard conflict.
KATHMANDU — “Predator-proof” livestock and animal husbandry practices can potentially lead to a win-win situation for livestock, humans and leopards living in the same landscape, a new study looking at human-leopard conflict in Nepal shows.
The study, carried out by researchers from Cornell University in the U.S., suggests that if communities adopt predator-proof practices, they can not only secure the lives of their animals (hence their livelihoods), but also toward aiding leopard conservation thanks to a possible reduction in human-leopard interactions.
“In Nepal’s hills, livestock are either allowed to graze freely or in loose sheds,” said Shashank Poudel, the lead author of the study. “The leopards see them as prey that can be killed with less energy and hence switch to hunting these animals,” he added. “As these animals are reared close to human settlements, humans come into the crossfire,” Poudel told Mongabay.
Predator-proof husbandry practices include herding of livestock inside safe sheds that predators can’t breach and regularly monitoring the activities of livestock.
Nepal’s hills have long been a hotspot of human-leopard conflict, which experts attribute to a lack of wild prey, water and habitat, and possibly the proliferation of canine distemper, a disease in the leopard population that can affect their nervous system. A 2015 study documented that nearly 65% of leopard mortality cases had anthropogenic causes, mainly lethal control and retaliatory killings.
As part of the study, Poudel and his team decided to focus on 640 municipalities and rural municipalities covering the entire habitats of leopards in Nepal and incidents of leopard attacks between 2015 and 2019. They then used keywords such as “leopard,” “leopard + attack,” “leopard + attack + Nepal” and “leopard + Nepal + [district names]” in both Nepali and English on the Google search engine.
For every positive result they found, they noted the district name, municipality name and date of incidence. The team then used occupancy models assuming, based on available literature, that leopard attacks on humans are a result of various ecological and social properties of the place concerned. “We designed the model in such a way that we account for attacks that may not have been reported and reports we were unable to find,” Poudel added. “We chose media reports available online for our analysis also to show that it is possible to use publicly available data to come up with inferences that have a direct bearing on conservation,” said Poudel.
The search came up with 72 reports of leopard attacks on humans between in the four years in 54 of 640 municipalities.
“When we completed our analysis, we found three main drivers of leopard attacks on humans in Nepal,” Poudel said. “They are: livestock and human densities and rugged terrain,” he added.
In the case of livestock density, various studies have shown that when communities rear livestock without adequate protection in areas with large carnivores and low availability of natural prey, cases of livestock depredation have gone up, the authors of the study noted. They said that studies analyzing scats have also reported that leopards are preying on livestock and in some circumstances are relying on goats and cattle as a prey resource.
When leopards come for cattle, which members of local communities prefer to keep close to their homes, the chance of encounters with humans, and thus attacks, possibly increases, Poudel told Mongabay.
When it comes to human population density, it is only natural that the chance of encounters between humans and leopards increase, the authors of the study noted. However, in areas where human population densities are high, the activities people carry out may also elevate the chance of encounters with humans. For example, people also rear dogs, which are nearly ideal-sized prey for leopards.
According to the latest national census, Nepal’s population distribution isn’t uniformly distributed across the country. Human settlements tend to concentrate near market towns and areas with better services such as health care, education and transportation.
In the case of ruggedness, the authors of the study noted that the positive association between terrain ruggedness (remoteness and availability of high amounts of cover) and leopard attack was consistent with findings from Uganda in addition to Nepal. “This could mean that leopards, which are ambush hunters and expert climbers, prefer to live in rugged terrain where it’s easier for them to conceal themselves,” Poudel said.
Nepal’s hills, which are naturally rugged, are facing a mass exodus of people looking for better opportunities. As a result, plots of land where they used to practice traditional agriculture have fallen barren allowing for expansion of forest cover.
The findings suggest that as the current ad hoc approach of translocating “problem leopards” doesn’t seem to work, addressing the three driving factors could reduce the probability of an attack on humans at the municipal level.
The first thing that could be done is to adopt predator-proof husbandry practices so that leopards don’t have incentive to venture into human settlements, said Poudel.
Another measure that could be taken, according to the study, is to regularly monitor hotspot areas for leopard presence and activity in partnership with local institutions like community forest user groups or municipalities to establish citizen-led human-wildlife conflict early warning systems.
“Similarly, prioritizing conservation interventions in rugged areas [e.g., providing resources to raise awareness of potential leopard attacks and support safety measures] could help to increase preparedness, thus reducing human injury and fatalities,” the authors of the study noted.
As the study provides analysis at the municipal level, local governments could take proactive measures to address conflicts, Poudel said.
To work at a more detailed level, Poudel is analyzing camera trap images his team set up in the Chitwan-Annapurna Landscape. “As we didn’t have data on the density of dogs, we couldn’t incorporate their density into our model. But the camera traps will be helpful in doing so in the Chitwan-Annapurna Landscape,” he added.
Researcher Babu Ram Lamichhane, who wasn’t involved in the study, said the study is comprehensive and provides useful insights to address human-leopard conflict. It uses an occupancy model, which is better than other models as it captures both the presence and absence of human-leopard conflict.
He added that the study could have also compared the number of incidents reported in the media with the number of compensation claim cases to make it more robust. “I would have also liked to know which media (either national or local) reported each of the cases.”
In Nepal, conservationists suspect link between canine distemper and human-leopard conflict
Poudel, S., Twining, J. P., Stedman, R. C., Ghimire, S. K., & Fuller, A. K. (2023). Ecological and anthropogenic drivers of leopard (panthera pardus fusca) attack occurrence on humans in Nepal. People and Nature. doi:10.1002/pan3.10536