Tackling human - big cat conflict
As habitat shrinks and becomes fragmented as urbanisation and agriculture continue to expand, the risk of human-wildlife conflict inevitably rises – resulting in casualties on both sides. But big cats like leopards are remarkably adaptable and can often coexist comfortably alongside humans – until something like disease or injury tips the balance too far.
While many big cats successfully co-exist with humans, it’s not clear why some end up as ‘conflict animals’, often with tragic results. Human lives are lost, and big cats believed to be guilty often face brutal retaliation. But what if ill health or disease is causing a big cat to behave in this way? And how do we know if the right cat is being accused of an attack? And if an animal is caught in response to conflict, how can we tell if it is safe to release?
These are just some of the questions we want to address.
Human-wildlife conflict is often cited as one of the biggest threats to conservation and it’s easy to see why. Animals which threaten people, or their livelihoods, are likely to find themselves facing retaliatory action and big cats are no exception. And, as the human population continues to expand, finding the space for peaceful co-existence is an ever-increasing challenge.
A review of leopard mortality in Nepal revealed that 51% of deaths were a result of people responding to conflict. But it’s not always clear that the right leopard has been captured in the heat of the moment. In Nepal, we plan to gather evidence on the ground in the immediate aftermath of any incident, in order to reliably identify the specific leopard involved and help avoid indiscriminate retaliation. When a leopard is deemed suitable for release, it will be fitted with a locally-made GPS collar so its movements can be tracked and it can be recaptured and moved if necessary, helping keep people safe.
Surprisingly little is known about wild leopard health, and conflict research rarely includes a health aspect. In Russia an investigation has shown that over 2/3rds of conflict tigers are in poor health; it seems probable that disease – any state of ill health including injury, poisoning or infection - may be playing a significant role in the lives of big cats in other places too.
We plan to establish frameworks to screen captured big cats for any health conditions which might be catalysts for conflict. Wherever possible, cats will be anaesthetised, X-rayed and examined by ultrasound, while a full range of biomedical samples will be analysed in a local laboratory.
Fitting the rehabilitated big cats with GPS collars will enable teams to monitor what happens to the cats once released. Information collected from these rehabilitated cats will be compared with their health and recovery data. All of this information will be used to determine which other animals are safe to release, mitigating the risk of them reoffending.
Research results will be peer-reviewed and published. Information will be disseminated throughout the conservation community so that it can be applied to other similar situations.
We work in partnership with local conservation organisations to train them to rescue, investigate and treat conflict animals in order to better understand the problem. We help them use the results of investigations to develop ways of mitigating conflict. Our Veterinary Partners work with local wildlife vets, laboratory technicians and field researchers.
Our model of sustainability nurtures long term partnerships, with regular short visits by wildlife vets experienced in the relevant conservation medicine issues. We provide on-going remote support in between visits, reinforcing learning and enabling effective implementation of best practice.
In Nepal we are planning to award two fellowships to post-graduate students. One of these will go to a vet with an interest in wildlife health, and the other will go to a technician who will focus on building GPS tracking collars using local resources and the subsequent monitoring of leopards who have been re-released.
Together we can make a difference
We know that working in long term partnerships makes all the difference and results in sustainable success in the long term. Each partner brings key skills, knowledge and resources.
Conservation Partners are well-established and well-regarded in-country organisations. The advice, support and training a partnership with WVI and our Veterinary Partners can provide will add to their armoury when dealing with wildlife conflict.
Our Veterinary Partners are wildlife vets and vet nurses who want to share their expertise with colleagues around the globe who have less access to wildlife medicine knowledge and training.