This story appears in the December 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.
We were sitting in the dark, waiting for the leopards beside a trail on the edge of India’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park, 40 square miles of green life in the middle of the sprawling gray metropolis of Mumbai. A line of tall apartment buildings stood just opposite, crowding the park border. It was 10 p.m., and through the open windows came the sounds of dishes being cleaned and children being put to bed. Religious music floated up from a temple in the distance. Teenage laughter, a motorcycle revving. The hum and clatter of 21 million people, like a great machine. Somewhere in the brush around us, the leopards were listening too, waiting for the noise to die down. Watching.
About 35 leopards live in and around this park. That’s an average of less than two square miles of habitat apiece, for animals that can easily range ten miles in a day. These leopards also live surrounded by some of the world’s most crowded urban neighborhoods, housing 52,000 people or more per square mile. (That’s nearly twice the population density of New York City.) And yet the leopards thrive. Part of their diet comes from spotted deer and other wild prey within the park. But many of the leopards also work the unfenced border between nature and civilization. While the city sleeps, they slip through the streets and alleys below, where they pick off dogs, cats, pigs, rats, chickens, and goats, the camp followers of human civilization. They eat people too, though rarely.
They are fearful of people, and with good reason. Humans make fickle companions, admiring, rescuing, and even revering leopards in some contexts, and reviling them in many others—shooting them, snaring them, poisoning them, hanging them, even dousing a trapped leopard with kerosene, striking a match, and calmly filming as the animal writhes and whirls in a ball of fire, dying, but not nearly fast enough. Conservationists call leopards the world’s most persecuted big cat.
And yet leopards have become our shadows, our quasi-companion animals. They have no choice. The two great leopard population centers, sub-Saharan Africa and the subcontinent of India, are among the most populous regions in the world. Human expansion has already cost leopards an estimated 66 percent of their range in Africa and 85 percent in Eurasia, with most of the loss occurring over the past five decades. In many areas the only place left to survive is side by side with humans.
Unlike most other big cats, leopards can adapt, up to a point. They can prey, for example, on anything from dung beetles and porcupines to a 2,000-pound eland. They can make a home at 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the Kalahari Desert or at minus 13 degrees in Russia. They can thrive in sea-level mangrove swamps on the coast of India or at 17,000 feet in the Himalaya. That adaptability, combined with a genius for hiding in plain sight, means leopards are entirely capable of living among humans, as they do in Mumbai. The question is whether humans can learn to live with leopards.
We have a long and complicated relationship, and like much else, it began in Africa. Leopards are a young species: They emerged in their modern form as recently as 500,000 years ago. Like us, they spread out to populate a large chunk of the globe, from the southern tip of Africa to the Russian Far East, as well as west into Senegal and southeast to Indonesia. They may have shadowed early humans, to take advantage of our ability to drive off lions and other competitors or, later, to pick off our livestock. We may have shadowed them to scavenge on their kills. (They are more vulnerable than other carnivores to scavenging because of their practice of stashing a kill under a bush or up a tree, then wandering off a short distance to rest, returning later to eat.)
By their predatory behavior, leopards imprinted themselves on the genomes of our fellow primates: Even monkeys that have never seen a leopard nonetheless display an instantaneous and heightened attentiveness to that spotted yellow coat. And so do we, with a curious mix of alarm and attraction. Our ambivalence is evident in the jarring mix of headlines that turn up in any news search for the word “leopard.” There’s often something warm (“Newborn Leopard Cubs Make History, Melt Your Heart”), something violent (“Another Leopard Attack in Junnar”), and something fashionably titillating (“Gisele Bündchen Rocks Leopard-Print Bikini in Costa Rica”). Often the headlines also speak of anger and vengeance.
One day in South Africa’s Limpopo Province I visited a cattle rancher, a big, friendly man in his 60s, dressed Boy Scout style in a short-sleeved shirt, green shorts, and green socks, rolled down an inch or two from the knees. He had a King James Bible open on his desk, heavily highlighted, and the skull of a leopard displayed on an end table. The skull had a small, precise bullet hole in it.
“We are very fond of these animals,” he began. “It’s a beautiful animal! But it’s difficult to be on the same land with them. We have lots of natural prey for them—warthogs,baboons, wild pigs, natural prey.” And yet the leopards insisted on taking his calves.
He opened the studbook in which he registers births and deaths of his Brahman cattle, a prized breed, and began to recite killings—one every six weeks or so over the previous 18 months. His farmworkers learn of a death on morning rounds, when a cow urgently informs them of her loss, and of her need for milking. Later she leads them “straight to where the calf is, half eaten or up a tree.” The rancher estimated his loss for each calf at more than $2,000. “We have very experienced trackers, and they’ll say if the leopard is a young female or an older male. Usually the leopard will come back for two days.”
The use of trackers—plus that skull on the end table—suggested someone waiting with a rifle to kill the attacker. But the rancher said only, “You live with them, and you keep quiet about them, because if you do anything about them, you are liable to be arrested and put in jail.” (South African law permits both jail time and a fine, but sentences are almost always lenient.) Other people kill “hundreds of them every year,” he said. “They’re shot, stuck in a hole, you put petrol on it, put a match in, and that’s it.”
Some leopard pelts also end up being sold into a trade that is driven to a surprising extent by the worship of God.
On a brilliant Sunday in July, in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, thousands of religious devotees were making their barefoot pilgrimage to a sacred hilltop, to the blaring of trumpets and the slow thumping of two-liter soda bottles beating bass drums. The single women marched with beaded straps across their bare breasts. The married women, cloaked in black, lifted their black umbrellas in time with the horns. But the men were the real spectacle. By rough count, 1,200 of them passed by with the skins of leopards draped across their shoulders, and in bands around their foreheads, biceps, waists, and ankles.
On the grassy field the men began to dance in unison to the droning music. They looked like a Zulu battle line and moved as if stalking prey, crouching a little, stepping slowly forward, then shooting one leg up and stomping it down, raising a line of dust clouds. For the Nazareth Baptist (or “Shembe”) Church, a century-old Christian denomination built on Zulu tradition, the dance is a form of worship and of meditation. Costumes matter too. In the past Zulu royalty wore leopard skins to symbolize power and enthrall their subjects. The Shembe men—accountants, lawyers, bureaucrats, and tradesmen—say that the leopard skins bring them closer to God and to their ancestors.
Cat conservationists, on the other hand, were horrified a few years ago when they stumbled on the festival. One of them called it “the biggest display of illegal wildlife contraband on Earth.” The sheer number of skins was bad enough in a country with a dwindling leopard population, estimated at fewer than 7,000 animals. But the skins also need to be replaced regularly, every five or six years, as they become brittle and curled with use. With a growing church membership attending multiple events each year, extinction of the species would be the only real limit on demand.
For leopard researcher Tristan Dickerson of the conservation group Panthera, the one hopeful sign at the first pilgrimage he attended was the presence of fakes in the crowd, mostly impala skins ineptly painted with leopard spots. It gave him the idea of making a better fake. He developed a design using a vinyl base and a pile fabric, with the colors matched to a real pelt.
“I’m going for the fake-Rolex effect,” Dickerson said. Shembe leaders supported the plan, and a local workshop now produces the fakes under the “Furs for Life” brand. Panthera has distributed 9,000 of them free to church members and can barely keep up with demand.
On the Sunday when I visited, only a single real skin was openly for sale. The price was $390 for a cape made from the leopard’s front half, and $425 for the back, serious money in a country where the per capita income is less than $13,000. One man complained that the fakes were a way for white people to thwart Zulu tradition. Another quibbled that a fake based on impala or other animal skins would be more acceptable to the ancestors than vinyl. Even so, most people seemed to want to get their hands on a fake skin. Dickerson calculated that 30 to 40 percent of leopard skins at Shembe gatherings are now Panthera fakes, up from 5 to 10 percent two years ago. It wasn’t necessarily a victory for love, or even tolerance, of leopards. But it was one less reason to kill them.
India may be the real test of survival in a crowded world—and perhaps a model for it—because leopards live there in large numbers, outside protected areas, and in astonishing proximity to people. Tolerance of leopards is also generally high, though India (and the British hunter and author Jim Corbett) largely established the term “man-eating leopard” in our vocabulary. It’s a misnomer: Women and children are the usual victims when leopards attack; size makes men more challenging. Because attacks often occur when people go into the brush to relieve themselves, men also gain an inadvertent survival advantage from being able to urinate while standing.
In any case, attacks on humans are relatively rare. It is far easier to die in India from civilization than from wildness: Nationwide 381 people are killed every day in road accidents, 80 more on rail lines, and 24 by electrocution. But leopard killings get headlines, partly because they are uncommon and also because they touch something primitive in the human psyche.
Late on a Saturday morning in May, in the Junnar countryside, 95 miles east of Mumbai, a government car pulled up at a prosperous-looking little farmhouse. The occasion was horrific and yet polite. On the large veranda in front, surrounded by a waist-high concrete wall and shaded by a metal roof, a crowd waited for the man from the forest department.
Six days earlier, at about 10:30 on a Sunday night, a two-year-old named Sai Mandlik was kneeling on a bench on this veranda and running a toy bus along the top of the wall. His grandmother relaxed on a daybed beside him. In the tall grass 20 or 30 yards away, a leopard spotted something: a head moving back and forth, not much larger than the bonnet macaques that are among its natural prey. It began to stalk. If he was lucky, the boy never saw the leopard that snatched him over the wall and carried him away through the fields. His grandmother screamed. The rest of the family came pouring out into the night. They were too late.
Now the tragedy was being reduced to ritual. The women sat silently on the floor at the far end of the porch. Local officials, old men in white Gandhi caps, sat in mid-porch, and at the other end of the porch, the father sat on the spot where his son had been taken, with male family and friends huddled around him. The forest official introduced himself (“I am also from a rural area; I am not somebody coming in from above”) and explained that he did not mean the compensation payment, about $12,300, as a substitute for their loss but as an acknowledgment from the government, which is responsible for the leopards. One of the local officials came to inspect the check, and they engaged in a cordial dance, with each of them saying the other should present it.
The family made a few small requests, and the forest official said he would try to help, and then it was over. Four miles down the road there was another house to visit with much the same story. When such leopard attacks occur, they tend to come in terrifying waves. Sai Mandlik’s death was the third attack in the Junnar area in just over two weeks, and the second fatality.
It’s a puzzle: Much of the time, even in Mumbai, leopards and humans coexist peacefully. So why do sudden violent outbreaks occur in an area such as Junnar? The morning after the presentation at the Mandlik house Vidya Athreya, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, sat beside a sugarcane field in the nearby town of Akole. On her laptop computer a map of the community was lit up in great turquoise splotches representing all the places she found leopards during her five-year study here, using camera traps and radio collars. In short, she found them everywhere, 11 adults roaming by night in and around Akole, an area with no forests and no deer or other big, natural prey and where 20,000 people move around by day.
The first question was, Why so many leopards? As elsewhere in India, it begins with reliance on open trash and meat market dumps, which support a thriving community of stray dogs, feral pigs, and other small animals. Federal law and an influential animal-rights movement prevent removal of street dogs. So the dogs and other domestic animals in turn support a thriving community of leopards. (They made up 87 percent of the leopards’ diet in Athreya’s study.)
Irrigation schemes introduced since the 1980s also help attract leopards. Among other crops, sugarcane is now common in formerly dry areas such as Akole and the Junnar region, and this tall, thick grass provides a perfect hiding place for leopards—close to villages, garbage heaps, and dogs. It is an ecosystem.
One day during her research, Athreya said, she passed by a field where 15 women were picking tomatoes, and stopped to chat with a farmer. Oh, yes, the man said, he’d seen a leopard only a few days before. She didn’t tell him that a leopard was resting in the sugarcane at that moment, just 65 feet away. They had no cause for concern. “Leopards are not as bloodthirsty as we think,” said Athreya. “They are reasonable at some level.” Anthropologist Sunetro Ghosal, who has also worked in Akole, described “a history of sharing space” and even “mutual accommodation,” leopards and humans alike going out of their way to avoid confrontations. (Possibly as a form of insurance, people in the region treat leopards and tigers as gods, or waghobas, and make propitiatory offerings at small waghoba shrines.)
To understand where the human-leopard relationship goes awry, Athreya investigated a rash of attacks that occurred in the Junnar region from 2001 to 2003. In what seemed at first to be a coincidence, the forest department had been trapping leopards, more than a hundred of them, from problem areas in Junnar, mainly after attacks on livestock. Those animals got released in forests an average of 20 miles from the capture sites—a common technique for dealing with problem carnivores worldwide. But after the relocations, Athreya and her team discovered, attacks on humans in Junnar increased by 325 percent, and the percentage of those attacks that were fatal doubled.
“It was a typical case of the messed-up mind of a cat,” Athreya said. Messed up, that is, by the trauma of being caught in a box trap, handled by humans, and dumped in an unfamiliar landscape and in territories already occupied by other leopards. The outbreak of attacks wasn’t, after all, a result of the leopards’ innate ferocity, according to Athreya and her co-authors: “Translocation induced attacks on people.”
Forest department managers generally got the message when Athreya first presented her research a decade ago. Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai stopped allowing itself to be used as a dumping ground for relocated leopards. (Like Junnar, it was also experiencing an outbreak of deadly attacks.) The city’s media took up the idea that relocations were more dangerous than the leopards. Workshops for apartment dwellers around the park, and for residents of slums inside the park borders, began to promulgate the larger idea that merely seeing a leopard in the neighborhood does not constitute “conflict.” Removing leopards—the first thing city dwellers often demand—disrupts the social system and opens the territory for new leopards that may be less experienced at the tricky business of “mutual accommodation.” The workshops also emphasized the human side of mutual accommodation, including basic precautions like keeping children indoors at night. (Larger public health measures would also help, including garbage removal, provision of toilets, and removal of street dogs, but economic and political factors often put them out of reach.) The abiding message was that leopards in Mumbai, Akole, and other areas are not “strays” or “intruders.” They are fellow residents.
Living by these ideas has not, however, always been easy. This is especially so for forest department rangers who show up in the aftermath of a leopard attack, and find themselves besieged and even beaten by enraged residents demanding action. They also come under pressure from local politicians. So the traps still come out, to give people the illusion of something being done, of safety, even if the actual result is to increase their danger. A few “problem” leopards end up being warehoused at crowded “rescue” facilities around the country, though there is in fact no way to identify a problem animal, short of catching it with its victim. A scapegoat will do.
Thus soon after the latest killings in Junnar, a forest ranger there emailed me: “Glad to inform you that we trapped a male leopard.” He identified it flatly as “the same leopard which attacked a boy last month.” It would spend the rest of its life at a “leopard rescue” facility in Junnar, which was already close to capacity, with 28 leopards. Most of the other leopards being caught in traps inevitably would be released, though for obvious reasons the forest department would not disclose how many leopards it was releasing in Junnar, or where. Two weeks after that, another leopard killed and dismembered a 60-year-old woman at a farm a few miles from where Sai Mandlik died.
I left India thinking that what I had seen of leopards there was a messy, difficult business, far removed from the way people live in more developed countries. Then I arrived home to an unverified report of a mountain lion four miles from my home on the Connecticut coast, followed by news of a black bear in the nearby city of New Haven. Mountain lions now roam through Los Angeles, coyotes in Chicago, wolves on the outskirts of Rome, great white sharks off Cape Cod. As human populations expand and we make the Earth more urban, other carnivores also seem to be adapting and learning to hang on in our midst. This can be unnerving, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing: Studies have repeatedly shown that healthy predator populations are essential to the health of almost everything else. If they are not gods, they are at least the great drivers of ecosystems.
Gradually, the Indian experience of leopards began to seem less like an otherworldly exception and more like a foreshadowing of how all of us may soon be learning to live.
National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative is dedicated to halting the decline of wild felines around the world. Learn more at causeanuproar.org.