Leopards are widespread residents of India, and do not live just in National Parks and Wildlife Reserves. These animals share habitats with humans and interact with us in different ways. One such shared habitat, and the subject area of this research project, is tea plantations in Assam, India. ‘Sharing’ is perhaps too neutral a term to describe leopard human interaction here- often there is conflict. Leopards living in these plantations are not known to be man-eating, but they prey on the livestock of the people who live in the plantations. Moreover, because tea is grown in bushes, a leopard hiding among the bushes can be invisible to the human eye until a person gets too close. When this happens, a leopard may attack the human in self-defence. While no scientific studies have been published that survey the frequency of these negative interactions, my research suggests that these attacks can be at times frequent enough to cause discomfort among people.
Most of the research on human-carnivore conflicts has been conducted by conservation biologists, and has focussed on the ecology of the (non-human) animals within protected areas (Ghosal et al. 2675). The human dimension of the conflict tends to be ignored in scholarship. Additionally, Assam is in North East India, a region very poorly studied. In India, much of the research on leopards has been focused on Western India. Thus, not much has been said by the academia about leopards living in unprotected areas in Assam, and how they affect humans and vice versa.
I conducted interviews with tea plantation employees (some of whom were victims of attacks), members of the tea plantation management (the director of a tea company and a on-the-ground manager), and scientists engaged in the issue in India and abroad. With the exception of the scientists’ interviews, my interviews were conducted in Hindi and I translated them while transcribing them. These interviews informed this research project for the most part. Literature published about similar conflicts in Western India and beyond supplemented the personal narratives.
My research is presented in three parts: “The Situation”, “The Actors”, and “The Future”. In each of these sections, I will try to put the different interviewees in dialogue with each other. This is an attempt to try to find common interests among the different actors, identify points of difference, and perhaps find ways for future collaboration.
Some pictures that my interviewees took of the wildlife they see in tea estates: