The balancing act: maintaining Leopard-wild prey equilibrium could offer economic benefits to people in a shared forest landscape of central India.
Human-felid interactions impose financial burden on people through livestock loss, and on wildlife managers and conservationists through investments in conflict resolution measures. Leopards Panthera pardus are among the most adaptable carnivores, but their widespread occurrence in human-dominated landscapes makes them highly vulnerable to negative interactions with people. Beyond their role in maintaining ecological balance, they may also provide economic benefits through control of wild prey populations in human-use areas. We assessed leopard distribution based on indirect sign surveys, and spatial drivers of livestock/human attacks by leopards based on interview surveys of local residents, in a forest landscape shared by humans and leopards in central India. We also examined the role of wild prey in leopard diet and the extent to which they offset leopard depredation on domestic livestock. Leopards occupied 80% of the landscape, positively influenced by forest cover and relative abundance of wild prey; size of human settlements had a negative influence. Average probability of livestock/human attacks was 84%, driven mostly by size of cattle-holding by local residents and anthropogenic disturbance within forests. Nearly 90% of leopard diet was composed of primates or wild ungulate herbivores; non-wild prey domestic livestock and free-ranging Dogs accounted for less than 3% of total biomass consumed. Under hypothetical scenarios wherein wild prey population reduced by 25%, 50% and 75%, we estimated that the contribution of domestic livestock towards leopard diet would increase to 21%, 40% and 60% respectively in order to support the current leopard population. We demonstrate that adequate forest cover and wild prey abundance allow leopards to persist in shared, human-modified landscapes. We use a novel approach for mapping spatial risk of livestock depredation and predict future scenarios under reduced wild prey populations. An ecological imbalance caused by decline in either leopard or wild prey populations could result in a concomitant increase in crop loss (to wild herbivores) or livestock depredation (by leopards), ensuing greater financial losses to local residents. An understanding of the ecological services and economic benefits conferred by carnivores could help in better valuing and conserving conflict-prone species in shared habitats.