Project Croak
niphad leopards sugarcane fields coexistence Maharashtra india

The leopard goes to school: local student-led conservation in rural India

An insight into how local students are furthering leopard conservation in the agricultural landscapes of rural Maharashtra by aiding coexistence between humans and the big cats. This revolutionary initiative titled ‘Janta Waghoba’ is led by Mrunal Ghosalkar, an avid conservationist who has worked with local communities to aid wildlife conservation across different landscapes.

// for the world’s highest density of leopards in found in the heart of Mumbai, one of the most densely populated cities in the world! 

On both the sides of the bumpy village road till as far as the eye could see were large tracts of sugarcane fields. Hired labour and farmers wiped the sweat off their brows as they continue harvesting the crop, almost two years after it was sown. 

The dense thicket that these sugarcane fields become prove to be a good habitat for leopards, along with the ample water sources from irrigation and prey in the form of dogs, pigs, the occasional livestock; this is the recipe for a flourishing leopard population.

And contrary to popular belief, this close proximity of leopards and humans does not necessarily spell harm to either party.

niphad leopards sugarcane fields coexistence Maharashtra india
The agricultural landscape of Maharashtra

And contrary to popular belief, this close proximity of leopards and humans does not necessarily spell harm to either party. Recognizing that most negative interactions between humans and leopards are a consequence of misunderstandings or due to avoidable situations, Mrunal Ghosalkar has devised an innovative method to aid the peaceful coexistence of the big cats and humans in this landscape.

Moving away from the conventional idea of trying to change the behaviour of leopards by methods such as sterilization, translocation or trapping, which have been proven to not only be ineffective but in some cases, even worsen the situation. In fact, the trapping and translocation of leopards have proven to increase attacks on humans and livestock by a large amount in Junnar Maharashtra! To know more about the science behind this please click here. This project, ‘Janta Waghoba’ meaning ‘the wise big cat’ turns the situation a hundred and eighty degrees, emphasizing on the need to ‘shift the focus from the animals to humans’.

This project, ‘Janta Waghoba’ meaning ‘the wise big cat’ turns the situation a hundred and eighty degrees, emphasizing on the need to ‘shift the focus from the animals to humans’.

niphad leopards coexistence Maharashtra india
Mrunal enthrals a rapt audience

Historically, humans and the big cats have shared this landscape of northern Maharashtra and there is no reason why this could not be the case today. Only if human safety could be secured by engaging the locals and providing them with simple precautionary measures and a basic working knowledge of the feline to keep themselves and their livestock safe then it would aid the conservation of leopards as well. This is because leopards are one of the most adaptive big cats in the world, if left alone they shall thrive in the seemingly most unlikely of landscapes; for example- the world’s highest density of leopards in found in the heart of Mumbai, one of the most densely populated cities in the world! 

In fact, the trapping and translocation of leopards have proven to increase attacks on humans and livestock by a large amount

niphad leopards coexistence Maharashtra india
A leopard camouflaged in the undergrowth

Thus, with an aim of reducing these negative interactions between humans and leopards by concentrating on human safety, ‘Janta Waghoba’ was initiated by the a group of scientists, artists, researchers, the forest department and awareness coordinators who were whole-hearted convinced that this outreach programme has the potential to change the dynamics of human-leopard relations in the region.

After trying out the various conventional methods of outreach and awareness on the field, Mrunal realised that addressing stakeholders at a personal level was not quite as effective as was arousing the curiosity of students and making them the initiators and agents of change. Since most of the villages in the taluka had a school, Janta Waghoba was able to reach several stakeholders in a shorter timespan. This campaign differs from other such outreach initiatives in the perspective it takes; it does not seek to solely educate the people on the big cat but rather, it takes an anthropocentric approach, revolving around enhancing the understanding of the leopards and focusing on human safety more than anything else.

niphad leopards coexistence Maharashtra india
Flash cards on how to remain safe from leopards

I attended a few such outreach campaigns across primary and secondary schools in the Niphad taluka and found them to be extremely engaging, a presentation distilled and perfected through the months of fieldwork. The talk begins by running through doodled flash cards projected on a screen and mentioning that this presentation has been put together by Dr Vidya Athreya and a team of scientists who studied the identical adjoining landscapes in Akole, Junnar and Sangamner in Maharashtra- immediately forging a bond of similarity and adding some weight and credibility to the presentation to follow. 

Delivering the talk with a generous mix of humour, the students are enthralled; at one point she asks, ‘why does the leopard come near your house? To watch TV?!’ which leaves the students in splits! She then goes on to talk about how the leopard is only attracted to the pigs that proliferate in the garbage near humans and that why they are drawn towards human habitation. Drawing a parallel to this scientific fact later on in the talk, she asks- when the ‘noteban’ took place and you wished to withdraw money from an ATM, if you found an ATM to be defunct would you keep revisiting it? Of course not, in the same way once a leopard realises that there is no food at a particular place it shall not keep revisiting it!’ Thus keep your livestock protected and the surroundings clean- free of leopard prey! 

niphad leopards coexistence Maharashtra india
Recognising ‘student leopard ambassadors’ by the forest department

A subtle message is also subconsciously imbibed through the talk for there is the talk of a ‘good’ farmer who once found leopard cubs in his fields but chose to let the cubs remain in his field, where the mother leopard found them and moved them to safety once the humans had left the scene- all captured on camera traps. However, the presentation does not speak much about the ‘leopard conservation’ or how they are our nation’s wealth and pride for then it would be perceived as a leopard-activist and not someone working towards the humans’ betterment. Even when instances where a negative interaction could take place are touched upon, the words generously used are ‘could, may, possibly, potential to arise etc’. This is consciously done, keeping in mind the aim of the project- concentrating on human safety. 

The talk culminates in a few images of commonly seen wildlife of the landscape such as rusty-spotted cats, hyenas, jungle cats, civets and leopards and also touches upon the scientific study of leopards done in the region; illustrating it through the radio collaring of the large male leopard named ‘Ajoba’, the story of which was made into a popular Marathi movie. This bit of the presentation along with camera trap images had the children at the edge of seats, inquisitive and excited to get a glimpse of the animals!

niphad leopards coexistence Maharashtra india
Other fauna that share their landscape

What I found to be one of the most innovative verticals of this project was the ‘leopard ambassador project’; under which select students from schools and colleges would be trained and would then conduct awareness sessions for their peers in areas with leopard presence. They are provided with an id-card, a file, flash cards, a bag and a questionnaire for this initiative, formalising the activity. This worked wonders as people were more receptive and open to hear what someone from their village had to say rather than an outsider, no matter how well-intentioned. It also doubled up as a public-speaking initiative which provided leopard ambassadors with a platform to hone their oratory skills and was a matter of pride for the parents of the student! Dr Athreya, a field biologist who has studied human-leopard interactions adds, ‘’. It is the fear of the animal that makes all of us want to react often in ways that can increase conflict (such as arbitrary trapping of leopards). Why not use the scientific knowledge and traditional knowledge (of people who share space with leopard) and impart it to other groups of people in order to increase their understanding of this complex issue and decrease their fear – the only way to increase acceptance.

This worked wonders as people were more receptive and open to hear what someone from their village had to say rather than an outsider, no matter how well-intentioned.

niphad leopards sugarcane fields coexistence Maharashtra india
Leopard ambassadors on ground zero

Although the results of an outreach programme cannot be tested empirically, it was a moment of success to see the forest staff tell the villagers the reasons why leopards do not harm humans why they cannot simply ‘be trapped and taken away’ as the ‘empty’ niche would then be occupied by another leopard, probably a younger one searching for its own territory. They went on to elucidate how humans are not the natural prey of leopards, the most prevalent fear in the region- using examples from the Janta Waghoba outreach programmes that they were part of.

Another instance took place in a secondary school where a small, timid girl from the 7th grade shyly raised her arm to ask a question about the behaviour of leopards at the end of the talk, despite being in a room full of over a hundred seniors and teachers!

Instances like these are a great motivation for, at the least, it proves that the youth are keen on garnering a better understanding of the inhabitants of the landscape that they share. With each region having its unique set of challenges and dynamics, there is no panacea for wildlife conservation and here, surprising as it may seem, human safety translates to leopard conservation.

niphad leopards sugarcane fields coexistence Maharashtra india
Leopard ambassadors at work. Reminiscent of George Schaller’s phrase; ‘teaching old minds to see with new eyes’

All text by Arjun Kamdar and photographs by Mrunal Ghosalkar.
(upload post-publication in Hornbill Magazine)

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