Spotted and Studied: Leopards of Bhimashankar

A study was carried out in Bhimashankar Sanctuary in Pune Division of Maharashtra State to study resource availability and dietary pattern of leopards. There are many villages inside the sanctuary and a large area inside the sanctuary is under human inhabitation. This considerably reduces habitat available to wild animals in the sanctuary including the leopard and its prey animals. It also creates fragmentation of forests creating barriers for movement of wild animals.

A grid of line transects was laid in the study area for estimation of prey densities. Leopard scats were collected from the study area and analysed in the laboratory to determine prey animals of the leopard and its dietary pattern. The biomass density of natural prey in Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary is considerably lower than other   protected areas in and outside Maharashtra. There could be several reasons for this. Some of the causes are likely to be natural; Bhimashankar does not have herbivores such as chital, and four horned antelope that are found in other areas. The forests of Bhimashankar have a dense canopy but the shrub density that is required to support the graziers and browsers appears to be low; this could be a factor limiting prey density. There is also a possibility that biotic factors are limiting prey density in Bhimashankar. Some of the likely biotic factors are competition from livestock for fodder and water resources, loss of forest habitat by conversion to grassland due to grazing and other biotic pressures and poaching of prey species. If full protection is given to the sanctuary and constraints due to biotic factors are removed and we can expect that prey numbers in the sanctuary will increase, especially those prey that are subject to poaching. The prey densities may or may not reach the high values recorded in other protracted areas since the natural factors are different. Nevertheless with adequate protection we expect that Bhimashankar can support higher prey densities higher than those found today.

There is substantial pressure of human population on sanctuary resources. Grazing is a major pressure. Firewood collection, timber collection, collection of medicinal plants are other components of biotic pressure on the sanctuary. Poaching is prevalent in the sanctuary and we encountered cases of poaching during the study. Protection and patrolling are major priorities for the sanctuary. The sanctuary administration is hampered by shortage of staff. There should also be gates and check-posts at appropriate points for controlling movement of vehicles inside the sanctuary.

Maintaining a healthy ecosystem in Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary is of utmost importance for protection of the leopard and its prey populations. Control of biotic pressures on the sanctuary will help to increase the resource availability for prey animals of the leopard and benefit the entire ecosystem. There are a number of grassy blanks in the sanctuary; this is not a suitable habitat for natural prey of the leopard such as sambar, muntjac and chevrotain. Protection from grazing may help regenerate natural forest in these blanks and create suitable habitat for natural prey of the leopard. Strengthening protection levels and control of poaching is of utmost importance. Increase in number of field staff will help to strengthen protection in the sanctuary.

Supported by Maharashtra Forest Department