Next time you sit down to enjoy a cup of tea, and if it happens to be a tea from India, know there is a very good chance that leopards at one time or another may have inhabited the tea garden where the leaves were harvested. Of course a literal tea-time with leopards is never recommended, but the reality is they are a very common resident of many tea gardens in the country.
A recent study from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) showed that leopards are partial to tea gardens in north-eastern India, but their presence does not necessarily mean conflicts with people. The study, a collaboration between the WCS, the National Centre for Biological Sciences-India, Foundation of Ecological Research Advocacy and Learning, and the West Bengal Forest Department, was done in highly populated areas that included tea gardens and forested area in the West Bengal state. The approximate 600 km area is part of the “East-Himalayan” biodiversity hot spot which includes small protected areas along with tea gardens, villages and agricultural fields. The study showed that leopards will avoid highly dense populated areas, but are partial to tea gardens as they provide ideal vegetation cover. Out of the four large cats in India which include tigers, lions and snow leopards, the leopard is the most adaptable and able to live in protected forests as well as on the edge of urban areas overlapping with humans.
“The study mapped more than a 170 locations where people were injured by leopards and interviewed approximately 90 of those injured between 2009 and 2016. More than 350 leopard-human encounters were reported during this period, with five resulting in human fatalities.” No significant relationship was found between the probability of attack and probability of habitat-use by leopards. Researchers noted that in the case of a rare attack it was accidental or defensive rather than predatory resulting in only minor injuries. Attacks were also likely to occur during the day, while people were working and in areas where the tea shrubs were shorter, denser and the land was relatively flat. The majority of the attacks happened between January and May when large sections of the gardens were disturbed for maintenance like pruning of tea bushes and irrigation.
Like elsewhere in the world the study highlights the problems when human dominated spaces are shared with large predators like leopards. It identified particular hotspots of “conflict” and confirmed the importance of testing new methods to reduce human-leopard conflict. An early warning system, like making loud noises, alerting the animals to the presence of humans would provide enough time for them to move away, an approach that has already worked well in other areas.
In Assam, India’s northeast area, tea companies have already begun to implement practices to reduce conflict between humans and elephants, as well as prevent the loss of crops in a non-violent manner. Recognizing that as more habitat is lost due to humans wildlife will continue to seek refuge in the tea gardens and, by using fencing, corridors and specially built tiny reserves it will save the lives of both wildlife and people.
In a place where leopards have become “part of the tea garden habitat” tea estates are embracing policies and taking steps that promote co-existence. Many are certified by the Rainforest Alliance and abide by the Sustainable Agriculture Network which help to ensure that no wild animals were harmed or killed in the tea gardens.