The tea garden leopards of North Bengal

Did the leopards come from the forests to the estates to have their young, as the tea companies and the forest department believed? | Photo credit: Getty Images/iStock

More people are injured by leopards in North Bengal tea gardens than anywhere else in the world. Until 2016, the average was more than 50 per year. As a conservation biologist, Aritra Kshettry felt compelled to help people cope with the crisis. But first, he had to understand the circumstances.

Since wild herbivorous mammals find tea leaves distasteful, they cannot survive in the vast expanses of tea plantations. However, they make their way there by moving from one patch of forest to another. If a predator had to rely on these occasional ungulates, it would starve. Did the leopards come from the forests to the estates to have their young, as the tea companies and the forest department believed? What was it about the caffeine-rich plants that made them ideal leopard nurseries?

Camera traps and collared cats

North Bengal is a patchwork of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, degraded bits of forest and tea plantations. Within this landscape, researchers and forestry officials considered reserves to be the best habitat for leopards and tea acreage the worst. The researcher set up 30 camera traps in 15 locations at once, collected leopard droppings and tied two cats. But a necklace fell the next day. Ever since the collar of Babulal, the handsome, burly leopard, held firm, it has become the Rosetta Stone for unraveling the ecological mystery of the region’s spotted cats.

Although leopards are nocturnal cats, people encountered them during the day.

Although leopards are nocturnal cats, people encountered them during the day. | Photo credit: Getty Images/iStock

Just as leopards live in the sugar cane fields of Maharashtra and other parts of India (see Ajoba, a leopard in Mumbai, September 7, 2018), Babulal and his species are not strictly jungle animals. Densely planted three-foot-tall tea bushes may look like a bonsai jungle, but they provide adequate cover. After all, as nocturnal animals, cats sleep during the day when humans are around. They also have meat ready on the hoof at hand, as the cattle graze the weeds along the edges of the plantations and their rickety night pens are easy to break through. Life is clearly easy on the vast plantations. Identifying individual leopards from their unique arrangement of rosettes, Kshettry estimated that around 13 animals resided in every 100 km2 of tea garden, not so different from nearby Gorumara National Park, where 11 lived per 100 km2.

Tea companies and forestry authorities must have found these findings disturbing at first. But then a new question arose. If leopards were full-time residents, hiding their young and hunting livestock among the tea bushes, what would be needed to keep the workers safe?

Unlike sugar cane fields which are low maintenance during the growing period, tea gardens require constant maintenance, from picking leaves and trimming bushes to spraying pesticides and weedkillers. Although they are nocturnal cats, people encountered them during the day.

A garden has reduced clashes between its workforce and cats by resorting to the British colonial-era exercise of beating drums before workers enter the garden. The loud din alerted all the sleeping cats to the human presence, giving them plenty of time to come out. Without such a warning, they reacted violently when they were suddenly awakened from their sleep. Kshettry saw battery efficiency in real time. The slow, steady pulse of radio signals indicated that Babulal was sound asleep when the batsmen began to lift a racket. Within minutes, the faster and weaker signals implied he had moved away from the area. The Leopards were also keen to avoid confrontations.

drum beat exercise

“Coexistence is rooted in their nature,” explains the researcher. He promoted the practice of drumming in other gardens. Tea companies that have made exciting leopards part of their routine have reported no encounters.

Leopards also observe humans and come to their own conclusions. Workers have Tuesday or Thursday as their weekly day off. On these days, the cats start prowling in the afternoon instead of waiting for nightfall. The siren blasts regulate the work in the tea gardens, announcing the start of work, the lunch break and the end of the day. Perhaps the silence on holidays signals the absence of humans and the animals take advantage of it.

In the minds of workers, leopards have changed from jungle animals to garden cats.

Janaki Lenin is no environmentalist, but many creatures share her home for reasons she has yet to discover.

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