Tea-Time with Leopards

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.

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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.

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Leopard is scavenging on a dead gaur, a species of wild cattle. Credit: Kalyan Varma Image Phys.org

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.

Lion Queens

Protecting Lions in India’s Gir National Park, Forest is a serious job and one that a has been taken on by a group of women known as the ‘Lion Queens’.

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The Lion Queens of India – Image Sakal Times

The Lion Queens started in 2007 when the state of Gujarat decided to employ a small group of women in the forestry department in Gir National Park. Instead of taking ‘desk jobs’ the women opted to take on the extremely tough but rewarding roles as forest guards.  Today 46 women forest guards working right on the front line, a further 43 women have been recruited and are going through intensive training right now.

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Working and risking their lives to protect wildlife. ImageThe Hindu

Gir is home to the highly endangered Gir Lions as well as a host of other wildlife including leopards, crocodiles, deer, snakes and Hyena. The Lion Queens rescue Lions, and other wildlife, arrest poachers, work with local villagers to reduce human-wildlife conflict, bottle feed leopard cubs and overcome dangers almost every day in their jobs.

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Gir is the sole home of the Asiatic lions (Panthera leo persica) about 523 of them, and is considered to be one of the most important protected areas in Asia due to its supported species. Image Vishwa Gujarat

One of the toughest of the Lion Queens is Rasila Vadher, who now heads up the entire wildlife rescue team, can be seen here in this video which gives you a taste of what these amazing ladies do to keep wildlife and people safe.

The Barbary Lion

Existing only in history books, the Barbary Lion is wrapped in mystery and legend both for its magnificent appearance and uncertain fate.

Barbary Lions (Panthera Leo Leo) also called Atlas Lions, once roamed North Africa’s mountain ranges and were considered the largest of the lion sub-species. Larger than the African Lion that we know today, the males possessed a very distinct, well-known feature  – dark, thick full manes and were thought to have weighed 400 to 600 lbs.

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Photo: A Barbary lion from Algeria. Photographed by Sir Alfred Edward Pease around 1893.

Their beauty and power was admired by many from the Royal families of North Africa to the first humans to encounter them, the Egyptians and Berbers. Unfortunately for the Barbary Lion, the Roman Empire stepped in and dealt the species a brutal and bloody blow. The Lions were featured as the main event against Gladiators in Roman arenas, and over a period of 600 years thousands of Lions were killed for entertainment. The species were also considered vermin, hunted down by the Arab empire and European hunters with guns who quickly finished off the last of the wild Barbary Lions. Sounds like a familiar scenario doesn’t it?

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Barbary lion in a 1898 picture.

Barbary Lions were also taken to European Zoos and even did time in the Tower of London, but the extreme exploitation finally took its toll with the species succumbing and ceasing to exist in the wild in the early 1900’s.

Barbary Lions became extinct in Tripoli (western-Libya) as early as 1700, the last known Barbary lion in Tunisia was killed in 1891…in Algeria in 1893.. The last kill was recorded in 1942 on the northern side of the Tizi-n-Tichka pass in the Atlas Mountains, near the road between Marrakesh and Ouarzazat, two major tourist destinations today.” source The Sixth Extinction

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The Barbary Lion – 1800’s Wikimedia Commons

 Is the Barbary Lion truly extinct? Much speculation surround the possible existence of Barbary Lions with claims coming from Zoos, including the Rabat Zoo in Morocco, around the world who supposedly had them in their collections. In most cases the Lions were determined to be hybrids and not true Barbary Lions.

More recently it was discovered that they share a close genetic link to today’s living Asiatic Lions in India and that the Asiatic Lions could possibly be used to bring back the lost Barbary Lion.