Conservation biologist Sanjay Gubbi brings out a definitive book on leopards based on years of fieldwork in Karnataka’s forests

Reflecting a decade’s worth of research, the conservation biologist Sanjay Gubbi’s authoritative book on leopards is at once a handbook on the big cat, a naturalist’s diary, a conservationist’s primer and a collection of yarns about the jungle.

Published : Apr 03, 2021 06:00 IST

Leopards are one of the four big cats of the Panthera lineage that share the ability to roar, the other three being lions, tigers and jaguars.

Leopards are one of the four big cats of the Panthera lineage that share the ability to roar, the other three being lions, tigers and jaguars.

AN iconic photograph of the primatologist Jane Goodall bowing her head as a chimpanzee almost touches her forehead with its extended middle finger adorns the living room of Sanjay Gubbi’s 17th floor apartment in Banashankari in south Bengaluru. At the bottom of this framed picture is a short dedicatory note from her that reads: “For Sanjay, Together we CAN make the world a better place for all life.” Jane Goodall, who has rock star–like status in the worldwide conservation community (“ The chimpanzee lady ”, September 15, 2017), gifted this photograph to Gubbi in 1996 when he was working as an engineer in Vancouver, Canada. This was several years before he became prominently known in Karnataka and India, and now the world, as a conservation biologist with expertise in leopard behaviour.

Perhaps Jane Goodall had sensed something within Gubbi in their brief meetings; did she see a spark of commitment or was it the empathetic recognition of someone who had a similar, profound passion for wildlife? Whatever it was, her intuition in recognising Gubbi’s potential was portentous as he has emerged as one of India’s leading wildlife conservation biologists. His work at the Nature Conservation Foundation focusses on the conservation of large carnivores such as tigers and leopards and this puts him at the forefront of coming up with strategies to mitigate human-wildlife conflict. Gubbi’s commitment to wildlife conservation has been recognised widely, and he is the recipient of several prestigious awards, prominent among which are the Carl Zeiss Wildlife Conservation Award in 2011 and the Whitley Award (popularly known as the “green Oscar”) in 2017.

The lack of authoritative information on leopards compared with tigers is what spurred Gubbi to embark on research on leopards. Leopard Diaries: The Rosette in India , which has just been published, is arguably the first deeply researched book on leopards in the country and is backed by several years of scientific fieldwork in the varied forests of Karnataka. “It’s strange that there are a number of books on tigers but no authoritative book on leopards,” Gubbi said pointing to his home library where scores of books on Indian wildlife were racked neatly on several shelves, prominent among them David Quammen’s Monster of God and Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard . The many tomes by naturalists such as George Schaller, Eric Dinerstein and Peter Wohlleben showed his broader, decades-long interest in the natural world. Among the several Kannada works on his shelves were books on hunting and the novels of Kuvempu and his son, Poornachandra Tejaswi.

Growing up in the smaller towns and villages of Tumakuru district in south Karnataka, Gubbi was active in the Scouts movement and attributed his initial interest in wildlife to school excursions to the woodlands of the region. In his youth, Gubbi took the initial foray into a career as a naturalist with birdwatching while involving himself in local issues of wildlife protection in Tumak uru. The dry deciduous forests and sometimes scrubby and rocky terrain of this southern edge of the Deccan plateau which was the natural home of leopards and sloth bears connected with Gubbi as well.

Also read: In the leopard’s lair

The conservationist, who turned 50 recently, looked back at this time in his life fondly and said: “This was the time that I began to understand issues of man-animal conflict, how to engage with mediapersons on environmental issues and with politicians to further the cause of conservation.” His early training has stood him well as he has used all these aspects to further his single-point agenda of wildlife conservation, and to date he has been successful in adding nearly 3,000 square kilometres of forested land in Karnataka to the protected area network. “Wildlife,” he writes in Leopard Diaries , depends upon the goodwill of individuals who are in the echelons of power, and if we are unable to muster it, conservation takes a back seat.”

While he was familiar with leopards as part of his work in conservation, Gubbi began seriously researching the carnivore a decade ago and has brought together his vast experience in his new book. Before this work, Gubbi had written three books in Kannada, a bilingual (English and Kannada) book on the Cauvery and Malai Mahadeshwara wildlife sanctuaries and a book in English titled Second Nature: Saving Tiger Landscapes in the Twenty-First Century (“ Saving wildlife ”, Frontline , August 3, 2018).

He writes in the preface of Leopard Diaries : “My research goal was to collect the best possible data on leopard ecology and to apply the data to leopard conservation.” But the book is so much more than this. It is a leopard handbook, a naturalist’s diary, a conservationist’s primer and a collection of yarns about the jungle, all rolled into one.

Gubbi’s book comes at the right time for the leopard: the animal is listed as “Vulnerable” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. While its status is slightly better than that of its fellow big cat, the tiger, which is listed as “Endangered”, it faces several problems such as loss of habitat, the poaching of its prey, and death due to wire snares and automobile accidents. Gubbi has recorded 67 leopard deaths caused by wire snares in 10 years in Karnataka alone. In India, government estimates put the leopard numbers at around 13,000, but Gubbi disagrees, saying this number is a serious underestimate. He contends that there are more than 20,000 leopards in the country because “many parts of the country that hold leopards were not surveyed during the government’s monitoring exercise”. In Karnataka, where Gubbi’s fieldwork is based, he estimates that there are at least 2,500 leopards.

What sets this apex predator apart from its fellows in the big cat Panthera genus (which also includes tigers, lions, jaguars and snow leopards) is the fact that it inhabits a range of habitats. Gubbi describes the leopard, which is built for “survival efficiency”, as a “habitat generalist”. Leopards are present in 63 countries in the world and “are considered biologically successful because of their evolutionary persistence and their widespread distribution”. Rather than listing out the terrain in which leopards thrive, it is easier to say where they are not found; as Gubbi says in the book, the only “places they remain absent from are deserts and snow-capped mountains”.

Also read: Exploring the flora and fauna of upper Nilgiris

The leopard’s tawny skin is the perfect camouflage. “The colour of the leopard and the spots on its body give it the perfect camouflage. These dark spots, romantically called ‘rosettes’, and its yellowish-brown fur, with its irregular and complex patterns, camouflage the leopard even in bright sunlight by allowing it to blend into the background,” writes Gubbi. Even the black panther, which is only a “melanistic leopard” has rosettes that “are visible only under oblique light”. These rosettes are unique to each leopard and help researchers when they have to distinguish between animals that look similar.

With regard to the range of leopards, Gubbi’s research shows that “the home range sizes of leopards living in small forest fragments or in a mosaic of forests and human-dominated landscapes are smaller compared to male leopards that live in areas that have larger natural habitat species”. One particular male leopard that Gubbi had radio-collared had a home range of nearly 141 sq. km in its natural habitat.

In forests in India, where leopards and tigers have to share the same space, how do leopards survive along with the larger cat? They have three tactics according to Gubbi: first, “they separate themselves spatially”, second, “leopards modify their activity patterns by being active at times when their larger cousins are inactive” and third, they “specialise on predation”. Thus, while tigers prey on bigger game, the “leopard will be satiated with medium-sized game”. Leopards are catholic in their choice of meat and eat almost all kinds of large and small animals, birds and reptiles.

To understand leopard populations in the wild, Gubbi and his team used extensive camera traps in a landmark study that spanned over nine years. While setting up their camera traps, they walked hundreds of kilometres in the rugged terrain of the forests of Karnataka identifying suitable locations. At each of the 24 sites that Gubbi and his team identified, they would spend “anywhere between twenty days and five months to complete the fieldwork”. The result was worth their strenuous effort as the team got 7,658 leopard pictures from which 601 individual leopards were identified.

Their camera traps, which were often targeted by elephants (the pachyderms destroyed 35 cameras), had other positive results as well. For instance, they helped in identifying poachers in the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary in south Karnataka who were subsequently apprehended. The traps also threw up some serendipitous findings such as a chinkara in the Bukkapatna Reserved Forest in Tumakuru, some “350 km south of its current distributional range”. Other rare animals such as the honey badger, the rusty-spotted cat, a brown mongoose and a lone wolf in the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary that were presumed to not exist in Karnataka were also sighted.

Also read: Elusive hunter

An important conclusion that Gubbi drew from his research was that “natural habitats are extremely important for leopards. The theory that leopards can survive well in some man-made habitats such as sugarcane fields is true but is not universal, and more dissection is required.” Leopards are extremely resilient and flexible in the sense that they can survive in different habitats but “their coexistence in human-dominated areas presents a delicate balancing situation”.

This “delicate balancing situation” becomes evident when we see that there have been a spurt of conflicts involving humans and leopards, which are often attracted to human settlements because of the easy availability of livestock. Between 2009 and 2020, Gubbi’s records show that “36 people have been killed and 283 injured by leopards in Karnataka”. It could be argued that leopards have become victims of their own conservation success as wildlife numbers in the country started to bounce back after the passage of the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972.

These conflicts often result in demands for the leopard’s capture and translocation. Gubbi’s research found that 357 leopards were captured between 2009 and 2016, with over 85 per cent of them being translocated. Rather than getting dismayed by this, Gubbi has used the exercise to radio-collar sedated leopards and follow their subsequent peregrinations to understand how translocated leopards adapted to their new terrain. On the basis of these experiments, Gubbi argues that leopard translocation is not a failure in India.

Writing specifically about Bengaluru, he says that his experience of working with leopards in the city “indicates that leopards are not present ‘inside’ cities, but have adapted as the natural habitats around metropolises change. Solitary and nocturnal, they can slip by in the darkness without being noticed and, of course, their size helps them survive on medium-sized prey, like domestic dogs, that are found in high densities in urbanised environments.”

Gubbi said there was no “single solution” to the complex problem of man-animal conflict, which seems to be on the rise. “The response has to be site and species specific and the effort at abating man-animal conflict has to be proactive rather than reactive.” Gubbi describes an instance in his book where he argues that “an increase in chicken consumption [by humans] and production has become one of the reasons for the higher human-leopard conflict”. Recognising the complexity of the issue, Gubbi writes in Leopard Diaries that “more work on understanding the dynamics of conflict—including seasonal factors, geographical patterns, circumstances under which conflict occurs and other issues—might give government authorities a chance to predict and understand the causes of conflict and craft policies accordingly”.

Also read: The ghost who stalks

Gubbi’s tryst with his destiny to save leopards was almost turned on its head in an ironic fashion when a few years ago a leopard nearly killed him. This savage event, which millions of people witnessed on their television screens or on social media websites, happened on February 7, 2016, which was a Sunday. Gubbi was peacefully watching a movie at home when he was summoned to a school on the outskirts of Bengaluru because a leopard had been sighted. By the time he reached the school, the leopard was trapped, and as it tried to escape, it attacked Gubbi, who barely escaped with his life from this mauling. He required 55 stitches and, as he writes in his book, many months of “painful treatments, stitches, skin grafts and physiotherapy” to recover.

Exemplifying his passion, even as he was fleeing from the leopard, Gubbi could not help but admire the animal that could have ended his life. He writes: “When I turned down to see where the animal was, I realised that the leopard was sitting right under me, hind legs folded and forelegs straight. Our eyes met, and his beautiful, brownish-green eyes looked straight into mine. Even in that moment of grave danger, I couldn’t resist admiring those beautiful eyes at that close quarter.”

If the leopard attack was a setback to Gubbi’s fieldwork, there were further challenges to his return to the field. In February 2018, he was diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome, the treatment of which led to vascular necrosis. He is still recovering from the replacement of his hip joints as a result of this ailment but has already started heading back to the forests from which he can never stay away for too long.

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