Leopards straying into human habitats to steal the odd goat or hen fit in with the behaviour of these nocturnal big cats. But not every one of them makes it safely back.
In Karnataka, India, a good number of leopards end up under fast-moving vehicles.
A study by the Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation found that between July 2009 and June 2014, 23 leopards were run over by vehicles while two went under trains.
“This is quite a significant number as we estimate the state’s leopard population at around a thousand,” study co-author and wildlife biologist Sanjay Gubbi told the Indian daily newspaper The Telegraph.
Of the 23, 19 died outside protected areas. “At least one leopard is killed on roads every three months in Karnataka,” Gubbi added.
Sources said road deaths of leopards have been on the rise in recent years mainly because of the expanding road network and upgrade of village roads into highways. “We are not against development of road networks which are an essential element of the fast-paced economic growth India has witnessed over a decade now,” Gubbi said.
But in India, he added, there is little sense of road ecology that countries such as Australia, the US, Canada and the Scandinavian nations have mastered in ensuring that the needs of wild animals are respected.
Leopards can run at speeds approaching 58kmh but stand little or no chance against speeding motor vehicles, Gubbi said.
Recently in Magadi, 60 kilometres from Bangalore, a leopard’s hind legs were paralysed after being hit by an unidentified vehicle. The animal has since been shifted to the Bannerghatta wildlife rescue centre in the city.
Gubbi said 41 cases of seizures of leopard pelts and bones were reported from the state in the same period, while 21 had been found dead in snares meant for other animals such as wild boars.
“Just the recorded deaths stand at nearly 10% of the total estimated leopard population in the state. This is a huge number, and it is time for some very strong steps to save them,” he said.
Gubbi, who has briefed forest authorities and plans to present recommendations before the public works department, said road ecology includes understanding the interactions between roads and the natural environment.
“At least newer roads and those being upgraded can be provided features like underpasses or overpasses for wild animals that would otherwise come in direct contact with the highways meant for motor vehicles,” he said.
While the state’s forest department has installed a few signboards warning motorists, especially truck drivers, about leopards crossing forest roads, Gubbi felt it was pointless. “One, the board is too small to be noticed while driving so fast on those empty roads. Besides, leopards don’t read.
”Forest department officials pleaded helplessness in controlling leopard movement. “We already have some measures like signboards warning motorists about animal movement apart from large-scale fencing along several forest roads,” said Vinay Luthra, principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife). “But there is little we can do to stop leopards from running on to roads.“
On the upgraded roads like the one that skirts Daroji forest we have provided underpasses for the movement of sloth bears. But road-kills of leopards cannot be limited by the (forest) department alone,” Luthra added.
Leopards, he explained, are found everywhere, including human habitations. “That’s the reason why it’s difficult to control their movement.”