Leopards (Panthera pardus), or panthers (as they were more popularly known a few decades ago) are the commonest of big cats in India. The Indian subspecies (Panthera pardus fusca), distributed across the subcontinent might have as many as 14,000 individuals (as of 2016), far more than all the tigers, lions, snow leopards and clouded leopards of the country combined. This abundance is down to the adaptability the species demonstrates, in terms of both habits and habitats. Leopards can subsist on any kind of prey, from something as small as a Black Naped Hare (Lepus nigricollis) to as big as a Sambar Deer (Rusa unicolor). It does so across a range of landscapes – arid scrub (the Deccan), cold mountains (the Himalayas) and steaming jungles (the Northeast).
Even more amazing are some populations that have made themselves at home among the concrete jungles of urban India. These mysterious city-dwellers eke out a living surrounded by millions of human beings. They hide in the surrounding patches of wilderness (such as Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park, or Delhi’s Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary) emerging at dusk to hunt prey. That could include rats, pigs, goats and cattle. However, wildlife biologists have found that the key to their success is their preference for cats and dogs. Studies of scat samples showed that they made up as much as 39% and 12% respectively, of leopard diet. One reason could be that cats and dogs are not protected in the same way that livestock are.
Another could be the leopard’s legendary lack of fussiness. Over the years, naturalists have pointed out it’s preference for dogs. Very often, it followed them into human settlements. Piles of refuse surrounding villages sustained a large number of feral dogs, easy pickings for a stealthy predator. Often, this would be inconsequential. Sometimes, it would end in tragedy for the dogs’ best friend. Many a man-eating leopard began its bloody career picking off strays from jungle hamlets. Given below is an excerpt from the legendary hunter Kenneth Andersen’s ‘Man Eaters and Jungle Killers’ (1957) where he describes the leopard as an effective killer of rampant dogs and monkeys, almost as a form of pest control:
Man-eating panthers are rare in Southern India. To begin with, the jungles are not so extensive, or nearly so continuously mountainous, as in the north, particularly along the foot-hills of the vast Himalayan range. The exception is the Western Ghats, which are almost wholly covered with forest for over 400 miles, with an average breadth of ten to fifteen miles. But the other forest areas are of much smaller extent and are more or less surrounded by cultivation. This causes carnivores, and particularly panthers, to confine their attentions to the herds of cattle and goats, in which the country is abundantly rich, and to a lesser extent to the village curs, locally known as “pie-dogs”, which are, like the common monkey, the curse of the land. Prior to the advent of hydrophobia vaccine, large numbers of persons died yearly of infection from the bite of mad dogs, as these curs constantly contract rabies, especially in the hot weather. Monkeys are and always have been a major menace, doing untold damage to crops and fruit trees. The monkey has a strong religious significance to Indians, and great objection is raised against any attempt to harm it. Panthers — at least so far as the “pie-dogs” and monkeys are concerned — therefore perform a great service to the land.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is based on a painting – ‘Indian Leopards’ (oil on canvas) by John Macallan Swan (1846 – 1910), an English painter and sculptor. His representations of wild animals were unrivaled. Swan was appointed to the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The painting itself is preserved in the Cartwright Hall of Bradford, UK and the image was uploaded by Art UK.