- A study finds that between 2008 and 2017, Karnataka witnessed 70 instances of leopards falling into open wells.
- Udupi district had the highest numbers of such incidents; Uttara Kannada and Dakshin Kannada came next. Most of the falls occurred during the monsoon, when visibility could be low due to heavy downpours.
- It’s a direct threat to leopards, but could prove very easy to tackle if open wells are secured, say conservationists.
The tiny village of Doddamargonahalli in south Karnataka’s Tumkur district, less than a three-hour drive from the state capital of Bengaluru, is a predominantly agricultural landscape. On August 31, 2014, the usually quiet village witnessed a dramatic incident. It all began when a farmer spotted a leopard trapped in the open, empty well in his areca-coconut grove.
What wildlife conservationist Sanjay Gubbi saw when he reached the site two hours later at 8.30 a.m. was worrying.
The leopard was growling intermittently but it was visibly tired, recounts Gubbi. The rescue operation that followed lasted almost three hours. After keeping crowds at bay, tranquilising the stressed leopard, and even descending into the well to tie the leopard with a net and rope to haul it up, the team (including officials of the Forest Department whom Gubbi had accompanied to the site, Fire and Emergency Services Department and a veterinarian) finally pulled the big cat up to safety. Forest officials transported and released the uninjured young female in the Bukkapatna reserve forest 60 kilometres away.
Such instances of leopards falling into open wells are not too uncommon in Karnataka, reveals a study by Gubbi and his colleagues. Their research, published in the journal Oryx last year, shows that 70 such incidents occurred across the state over a span of nine years (2008 to 2017). According to the scientists, such open wells are an “emerging threat” to these big cats that are listed as “Vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).
This “Vulnerable” IUCN status of leopards across their global range stems from the several threats they face, including habitat conversion and urban sprawl. In India, threats to leopards also include poaching, road traffic (and ensuing roadkills of the species) and conflict with people. But over the years, scientists have found that leopards are an extremely adaptable species. They do not shy away from human-dominated landscapes; in fact, some thrive in them.
A 2014 study, in which a team including scientist Vidya Athreya (currently with the Wildlife Conservation Society-India) GPS-collared five leopards to study their movement, remarked at how “constantly, and closely” the big cats lived “in proximity to humans” in parts of Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh.
Another study that used camera traps to determine wild carnivores in human-dominated agricultural landscapes in west Maharashtra revealed that leopards occurred at high densities in the area; the presence of cubs and breeding leopards showed that the animals were not just ‘strays’ from a reserved forest, but lived and bred there.
Read more: The Leopards of Aarey
In 2015, Athreya and her team used surveys of media reports that confirmed leopard presence in a site to find that the big cats occupied around 47 percent of Karnataka’s geographic area, outside protected areas (national parks and wildlife sanctuaries) in irrigated fields and rocky outcrops.
Gubbi and his team also turned to media reports to quantify the threat that open wells pose for leopards. They scoured through 400 media reports (both in the vernacular Kannada and English media spanning 17 dailies and news portals) between 2008 and 2017, which highlighted instances of leopards falling into open wells across the state. They combined these with 22 reports of wildlife falling into wells maintained by the state Forest Department as well.
A basic analysis of these reports reveals interesting patterns from across the 30 districts and 176 sub-districts in the state. The researchers found 70 instances of leopards falling into open wells in ten districts. The coastal Udupi district ranked at the top: 46 percent of the incidents occurred here. The nearby districts of Dakshina Kannada and Uttara Kannada came next.
“We see a lot of ground-level wells in these coastal districts that are not secured with parapet walls unlike in other areas,” says Gubbi, a scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation.
When the team looked at the seasonal patterns in such incidents, they found that more than 40 percent of the falls occurred during the monsoon (between June and September). Gubbi attributes this to possible declines in visiblity caused by the heavy showers that many of these districts, especially Udupi and other coastal ones, receive over these four months.
These reports also provided information on the management of these incidents in the state. For a majority of the 31 incidents for which data on rescue methods were available, the leopards were hauled out of wells using ladders, nets and cages. Authorities transported and relocated almost half the number of leopards rescued from wells (such as the leopardess of Doddamargonahalli), while eight leopards died due to the fall.
These numbers may not be as substantial as that of roadkills – a study led by Gubbi in 2014 listed 23 leopard deaths due to roadkills in Karnataka over five years – but open wells are an “emerging threat” to the species as science is beginning to discover how extensively leopards use human-dominated areas, write the authors in their study.
“I don’t know if it is an emerging threat, it has always been a threat like so many others such as roads, lack of proactive initiatives by the administration to deal with their presence outside (in terms of dealing with livestock loss) or better responsiveness of the FD [Forest Department] to justly and transparently deal with the compensation issues,” wrote Athreya in an email to Mongabay-India.
While she is not sure if she can put a scale on how problematic a threat it is, leopards falling in wells is definitely one of the direct threats to leopard conservation in human-use landscapes, she added.
But could Gubbi and his team have missed instances of leopards falling in wells because the media did not report about it? According to Gubbi, non-detection of such instances by the media may be an issue, but leopards are some of the most-reported wildlife, especially in vernacular media in Karnataka, he claims.
“Moreover, vernacular media has nearly six pages dedicated to district news that they have to fill, and they also have several stringers in rural areas,” says Gubbi. “Hence their rural coverage is much wider.”
Gubbi adds that the problem of unsecured wells is something that can easily be tackled. The State Forest Department work can secure wells under their Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) scheme, or under their several community conservation programmes; Gujarat, for instance, is securing open wells – which are a huge problem for lions in the Gir area – under a national programme, he says.
Not just leopards
But it’s not just leopards that tumble accidentally down open, wall-less wells. Though they did not actively collect this information, Gubbi’s study found 27 records of foxes, civets and sloth bears, as well as larger herbivores such as spotted deer, sambar, muntjacs and blackbucks too falling into wells in the state between 2008 and 2017. Large animals were no exception either: even the enormous Asian elephant and Indian gaur landed in deep wells.
Open wells and uncovered water tanks dotting buffer areas cannot be taken lightly, wrote Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Wildlife SOS (an organisation that also rescues wildlife in distress in human-dominated landscapes) in an email to Mongabay-India.
Wildlife SOS, which operates 11 wildlife rehabilitation facilities across 10 states and Union Territories, receives the maximum number of requests to rescue animals trapped in open wells in the states of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh (UP), confirmed Satyanarayan. They find that jackals, hyenas and porcupines trapped in wells are more frequent in UP, while instances of leopards caught in wells are highest in Maharashtra in their circles of operation.
“It is not just leopards, a species protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, that are vulnerable to these wells, but also several other species that may fall in accidentally, with potentially fatal results. In the interest of public safety, appropriate measures must be taken to prevent such incidents from taking place in the future,” added Satyanarayan.
Meanwhile, in 2015 – a year after the young leopard of Doddamargonahalli was rescued – Gubbi camera-trapped the leopardess in the Bukkapatna reserved forest where it had been released by the Forest Department. While her current whereabouts are unknown, the animal is hopefully thriving in her new home.
Odden M, Athreya V, Rattan S, Linnell JDC (2014) Adaptable Neighbours: Movement Patterns of GPS-Collared Leopards in Human Dominated Landscapes in India. PLoS ONE 9(11): e112044. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0112044
Athreya V, Srivathsa A, Puri M, Karanth KK, Kumar NS, Karanth KU (2015) Spotted in the News: Using Media Reports to Examine Leopard Distribution, Depredation, and Management Practices outside Protected Areas in Southern India. PLoS ONE 10(11): e0142647. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0142647
Jdeidi, T., Masseti, M., Nader, I., de Smet, K. & Cuzin, F. 2010. Panthera pardus . The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2010: e.T15954A5328595.
Athreya V, Odden M, Linnell JDC, Krishnaswamy J, Karanth U (2013) Big Cats in Our Backyards: Persistence of Large Carnivores in a Human Dominated Landscape in India. PLoS ONE 8(3): e57872. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0057872
Gubbi, S., Poornesh, H.C., Daithota, A., Nagashettihalli, H. (2014) Roads emerging as a critical threat to leopards in India. Cat News, 60, 30-31.
Banner image: The young female, before she was tranquilised by the veterinarian, in the open well in Doddamargonahalli, Tumkur. Photo by Karthik Singh.