Richard Collins: Big cat is a solution to India’s rabid dog problem

INDIA’S Rudraprayag leopard killed its first victim, a villager from Benji, in 1918. This notorious cat would go on to devour at least 125 other unfortunates over the next eight years. People lived in fear. Few ventured out after dark. The beast even broke into homes to satisfy its craving for human flesh.

Indian leopard often prey on dogs, and in Mumbai this can help alleviate the problem with strays.

According to one story, villagers managed to capture their tormentor in a pit-trap, but no Hindu would shoot the notorious beast, lest its evil spirit transferred to the executioner. It took several hours for a Christian to arrive from another village, by which time the cat had dug its way out of the pit and escaped. The legendary Jim Corbett took ten months to track the serial killer and despatch it. Leopards seldom harm people. The Rudraprayag one had been injured by hunters. Unable to hunt wild prey, it turned on humans.

Given their violent history, you would think that leopards should be kept away from human settlements. Recent research, however, has led to the opposite conclusion; the big cats, it suggests, actually save lives in built-up areas.

Mumbai, formerly Bombay, is a teeming metropolis with over 22 million people. Leopards sometimes prowl the streets at night, although I didn’t see any during a stay there some years ago. Such behaviour is not surprising; leopards are the most opportunistic of the world’s big cats; with over a hundred different prey species recorded, they seldom miss a trick. Is their presence in the city, therefore, a major ‘health and safety’ issue? Are they on the local neighbourhood watch radar? No, claim zoologist Alexander Braczkowski and colleagues in a paper just published; premature death rates would rise if the leopards were removed.

Braczkowski’s team studied the behaviour of the big cats in the 104km2 Sanjay Gandhi National Park on the outskirts of Mumbai. Over 270 bird and 35 mammal species have been recorded there. As many as 41 leopards live off deer, wild pigs and stray dogs in the park, at over twice the density found in optimum habitats elsewhere. Attacks on people occur. They peaked in 2002, with 25 cases attributed mainly to ‘problem’ leopards released into the park in a ‘catch and dump’ scheme operated by local authorities.

The park is also home to some of the city’s 95,000 stray dogs. While there is local sympathy for dogs, and people feed them, some residents carry sticks to keep them at bay. With good reason; rabies is endemic in India and a bite from an infected animal can prove fatal. Trawling through press reports, the researchers estimate that at least 75,000 people are bitten by dogs in Mumbai each year. More than 420 people have died of rabies in the last 20 years. There were 18 fatalities between 2013 and 2016. The feral dog is a dangerous beast.

The researchers found that dogs account for around 40% of a Mumbai leopard’s diet. The big cats kill between 800 and 2,000 dogs annually. Surveys, by biologists from the Wildlife Institute of India, show that there are fewer dogs close to the park than away from it. Around 90% fewer dog bites are recorded there than elsewhere in the city and this, the researchers believe, is due to the presence of leopards. By reducing the number of stray dogs, the cats prevent 90 human deaths from occurring each year. They also reduce Mumbai’s dog sterilisation budget by 8%, a cost saving of about €250,000 annually.

Alexander Braczkowski et al. Leopards provide public health benefits in Mumbai, India. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. March 2018.

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