03/21/2013 06:50 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2014

Leopards In Human Habitats: Big Cats Live Near Villages In India, Study Indicates

No wonder there are so many reports of leopard attacks in India -- the big cats are living a lot closer to humans than you may imagine.

Recent research focusing on the relative proximity of leopards to human habitats in India's western state of Maharashtra, found that the predators are sharing space with human populations.

"Nowhere in the world have such large number of big predators been reported in such densely populated human landscape," Vidya Athreya, an ecologist who led the study, told the Times of India.

Athreya, who works with India's Center for Wildlife Studies and the Wildlife Conservation Society, has studied for the past eight years how leopards and humans interact.

In the new report, published March 6 in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS, Athreya and her team analyzed photos taken overnight by hidden cameras placed around a densely populated area in Maharashtra's Ahmednagar district. Capturing 81 photos of leopards over a period of 30 days, the researchers were able to identify a population of six female leopards and five males, along with several cubs.

"Our study documents for the first time that a whole guild of predators can persist in totally human dominated landscape in India," Athreya and her team conclude in the study, adding, "This probably has a lot to do with India's laws which makes it illegal to kill any wildlife for sport or for consumption."

The findings highlight the need for a new type of conservation that would effectively manage the human-animal conflict that could arise from the big cats' close proximity to villages.

While Athreya said that no human deaths were reported in the study area, leopards have struck out against humans in India in recent years. In 2011, a leopard walked into the village of Prakash Nagar, in southern India, and injured 11 people before it was tranquilized. Months later, in early 2012, another leopard mauled three villagers in Guwahati, in the east.

However, Athreya told the Times of India that "leopards instinctively shun humans" -- something she said is "particularly true of an animal that has grown up in the same area."

"We found one of our radio-collared leopards visited a particular house every few days without ever disturbing its residents, who sleep in the open," she added.

Wildlife experts estimate about 10,000 leopards live throughout India, but the population may be even smaller with the threat of poaching, the BBC notes. According to a 2012 study on the illegal trade of leopard parts in the country, four leopards are killed every week.



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