The Leopard that Learnt from the Cat

Wildlife Conservation Society – India press release

New research from the Wildlife Conservation Society – India, just published in People and Nature, explores the relationship between humans and leopards in Himachal Pradesh, India through the study of the narratives present in the landscape. It examines the role of beliefs, myths and stories in influencing people’s perception of animals, and contests that there are communities in the world that consider animals other than humans as thinking beings. This paper challenges notions of human-wildlife conflict and presents alternative ways of understanding the dynamics between humans and wildlife.

Leopard from camera trap in Shongi © Himachal Pradesh Forest Department.

People in Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh think of leopards as not mere instinct driven animals but as adaptive beings who respond to specific situations. They are seen as thinking beings, possessing qualities such as conscious thought, self and kinship that are usually attributed only to humans. This perspective was revealed in an ethnographic study conducted in Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh to understand the influence of intangible factors such as stories, beliefs and religion on human-leopard relationships.

People’s perception of leopards is based on cultural narratives and personal experiences, and thus extends beyond the ecological and socio-economic factors that conservation studies normally emphasize on.

“In the district of Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh, India, humans and leopards have been sharing space since decades despite it being a rural landscape outside the realm of 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,” says Dhee, first author of the study “The Leopard that Learnt from the Cat, and other narratives of carnivore-human coexistence in northern India” published in the British Ecological Society’s journal People and Nature. (doi:10.1002/pan3.10039, 7 July 2019). The study was conducted by researchers from WCS India, Himachal Pradesh Forest Department and NINA, Norway, the authors being Dhee, Vidya Athreya, John D. C. Linnell, Shweta Sivakumar, Sat Pal Dhiman.

Villages in Hamirpur © Dhee.

The researchers used an ethnographic framework wherein the primary researcher spent a substantial amount of time involved in everyday activities such as farming, cooking and travelling in the landscape. Permanent village residents, migratory shepherds and forest department personnel were the main stakeholder groups interviewed in this study.

The qualitative thematic analysis of the interviews was conducted using an inductive framework i.e. instead of identifying themes prior to analysis, the themes that emerged from within the transcripts were identified, compiled and substantiated using extant literature.

The study revealed that participants’ description of leopards and their behaviour arose out of knowledge that was based on experience as well as being culturally informed. Participants 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. Multiple participants strongly believed that the leopards that they presently see in their surroundings are not the wild leopards that they have been sharing the landscape with for decades and have learnt about through myths and stories. Instead, they believed that they are paltu (domesticated) leopards that the forest department has released to protect the forested areas from human intrusion.

The team © Shweta Shivakumar.

Narratives such as 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 locally present narratives in moulding the relationship between humans and animals within shared landscapes, consequently underlining the possible shortcomings of looking at human-animal dynamics only through the narrow lenses of ecology or socio-economics.

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