People and Nature. 2019;00:1–11.
1 | INTRODUCTION
Different cultures around the world conceptualize nature, and wild‐
life in particular, in ways that can be radically divergent from the
formalized, modern, urban, academic understanding of the same con‐
cept (Aiyadurai, 2016; Gebresenbet, 2017; Govindrajan, 2015; Hill &
Webber, 2010; Knight, 2003; Lescureux et al., 2011; Saunders, 1998).
Currently, as reflected in conser vation literature, the approach to
studying wildlife–human interactions usually lies in the doma ins of the
ecological and socio‐economic sciences, often reducing very complex
issues to metrics like economic damage or resource value that can be
easily quantified in monetary terms (Inskip & Zimmermann, 2009).
DOI: 10.100 2/pan3.10 039
The leopard that learnt from the cat and other narratives of
carnivore–human coexistence in northern India
Dhee1 | Vidya Athreya1 | John D. C. Linnell2 | Shweta Shivakumar1,3 |
Sat Pal Dhiman4
This is an op en access article under t he terms of the Creat ive Commo ns Attri bution L icense, w hich per mits us e, distr ibutio n and repr oduct ion in any me dium,
provide d the orig inal work is proper ly cited .
© 2019 The Auth ors. People and Nature published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecolo gical Society
1Wildlife Conservation Society – India
Program, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India
2Norwegian Institute for Nature Research,
3Centre for Wildlife Studie s, Bengaluru,
4Joint Secretar y (Forests) to the G overnme nt
of Himachal Pradesh, HP Secretariat, Chotta
Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India
Wildlife Conservation Society ‐ India;
Research Council of Norway, Grant/Award
Number : 251112; Himachal Pr adesh Fo rest
Handling Editor: Juliette Young
1. This study explores the diversity of factors that influence human–leopard rela‐
tionships in Himachal Pradesh, India. Looking beyond the socio‐economic and
ecological dimensions of human–leopard conflict, it documents the multifaceted
nature of human–wildlife relationships.
2. We carried out a qualitative analysis of human–leopard interactions based on in‐
terviews conducted during an ethnographic study of various stakeholders in the
vicinity of a village in Hamirpur district, Himachal Pradesh, an area with a long
history of co‐habitation between leopards and rural inhabitants.
3. We propose that the unique ways in which our participants relate with non‐human
beings arose from both culturally informed and experience‐based knowledge sys‐
tems. Based on the narratives of the everyday interactions between humans and
leopards, we propose that the people in the landscape relate to leopards with an
underlying belief that leopards are thinking beings.
4. We explore the influence of myth and story telling in the production of narratives
that define the image of the leopard in the landscape. We also underline the pos‐
sible shortcomings of looking at human–animal dynamics only through the narrow
lenses of ecology or socio‐economics during the production of policy and illus‐
trate the consequence of discounting the significance of coexistence‐promoting
narratives in shared landscapes.
carnivore, Himachal Pradesh, India, human dimentionas of wildlife, human–human conflict,
human–wildlife interaction, leopard, perception, stakeholder
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DHEE Et al .
The positivism associated with western science was inherently
an exodus in thought, away from religious explanations and towards
the use of empirical, falsifiable and observation‐based knowledge
(Comte & Bridges, 2007). It promoted verifiability as the yardstick
to produce a system based on scientific knowledge, consequently
decreasing the significance of subliminal and subjective truths that
1991). As positivist modes of knowledge production gained impor‐
tance in the modern world, it supplanted culturally informed knowl‐
edge in moulding social processes including the political, economic
and interpersonal. It has taken conservation many decades to recog‐
nize the relevance of culturally informed knowledge in the diversity
of cultures that are not wholly entrenched in modernity. However, it
is increasingly being recognized that human–wildlife interactions are
more complex, taking on myriad forms (Pooley et al., 2017). Humans
and wildlife interac t with each other in ways which can range from
reverence to extreme conflict (Hunt, 20 08). Furthermore, it has been
argued that what we term as conflicts between humans and wildlife
are often reflections of underlying human–human conflicts between
groups of people that view wildlife in different ways (Redpath et al.,
2013). Understanding these complex human–human and human–
wildlife relationships is essential, because humans predominantly
determine the fate of wildlife.
Humans and animals have historically shared space, and an‐
thropological accounts provide a glimpse into the rich diversity of
interactions between people and wildlife, including large, potentially
dangerous predators (Aiyadurai, 2016; Athreya, Odden, Linnell,
Krishnaswamy, & Karanth, 2013; Newman, 2012; Saunders, 1998).
Such narratives are often absent in ecologically designed studies of
human–wildlife interac tions. However, in the field of anthropology,
recent developments have led to what is known as ‘the animal turn’,
which gives significance to culturally informed knowledge systems
in the understanding of non‐humanbeings (Weil, 2012). Many re‐
searchers, especially within the fields of geography, anthropology
and animal studies recognize the existence of multiple societies
across the world that understand and relate to non‐human beings in
a manner which differs from current academic discourse (Das, 2014;
Faier & Rofel, 2014; Kohn, 2013; Weil, 2012). Recently, this insight
is also gaining the attention of ecologists and conservationists. In
addition, some emerging philosophies of post‐humanism, such as the
writings of Haraway (20 08), extend the notions of morality, empathy
and companionship to encompass beings other than human. While
such emerging philosophies predominantly pertain to the animal
rights tradition, which is of ten viewed as imprac tical in real world
settings and perhaps incompatible with the process of wildlife con‐
servation, the ideas may well have a broader relevance.
Furthermore, the discourse surrounding animism within the dis‐
cipline of anthropology recognizes the plurality of cosmologies that
exist in different parts of the world and takes particular interest in
societies that understand the world as inhabited by human and non‐
human ‘persons’ in intersubjective and interagentive communication
with one another (Arhem & Sprenger, 2016). While the structural‐
ist approach understands animism through ontological categories,
the phenomenological approach understands animistic beliefs as
emerging out of a different way of learning about the world wherein
some indigenous societies understand the world through interacting
with it rather than as passive observers (Bird‐David, 1999; Descola
& Pálsson, 1996; Ingold, 2000; Vivieros de C astro, 1998). But the‐
ories surrounding animism predominantly pertains to indigenous
communities and fails to encompass cosmologies of societies that
Vivieros de Castro, 1998). The participants inter viewed in this study
FIGURE 1 Location of ethnographic
study in the Hamirpur district, Himachal
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DHEE Et al .
are predominantly belonging to a rural Hindu community and are
not traditional animists or a part of any indigenous communit y.
Therefore, in this study, rather than trying to use the frameworks
provided by animism, we use an induc tive methodolog y to build an
empirical understanding of the cosmologies present in this social
Over the last few years, such approaches have allowed research‐
ers in India to discover unique interplays of human–wildlife relation‐
ships in a variety of landscapes across the country (Aiyadurai, 2016;
Athreya, 2013; Barua, Bhagwat, & Jadhav, 2013; Ghosal & Kjosavik,
2015; Govindrajan, 2015; Kshettry, Vaidyanathan, & Athreya, 2017).
In this study, which was carried out alongside an ecological study of
human–leopard interactions in the state of Himachal Pradesh, India,
we looked at the relationships local people have with leopards in
shared spaces. We explore issues that are often overlooked in eco‐
logical studies but are very relevant to the conser vation of large cats
in human‐dominated landscapes. Our study used in‐depth, semi‐
structured interviews to explore narratives rural people possessed
concerning their interactions and relationships with leopards and
the authorities who manage them.
1.1 | Study site
The ethnographic research was centred around a village in the
Hamirpur district of Himachal Pradesh, India (Figure 1). Himachal
Pradesh is a Himalayan state with a population densit y of 123 people
per km2. Being a predominantly agricultural state, small scale farming
and livestock rearing are the main sources of income for the major‐
ity of the population (http://hpsamb.nic.in, 2013). Hamirpur lies on the
Shivalik range of the pre‐Himalayas with elevations varying between
400 and 1,100 m (http://hpsamb.nic.in, 2013). The river Beas and its
tributaries are the main source of water in the region, and they wind
through the landsc ape forming small channels with seasonal flows of
water that of ten have a dense undergrowth (called nullahs), and large
and steep channels with perennial water flow (called khuds). The forest
areas in Hamirpur primarily consist of Chir Pine (Pinus roxburghii) that
are periodically harvested. The landscape also contains large stretches
of grass, which is gathered for fodder by local communities between
October and January. Anecdotal evidence suggests that leopards have
been a constant presence in the region as far back as people remember
and have been known to visit villages sporadic ally.
As per the most recent India census data (2011), the village con‐
tains ~2,050 people of whom about 80% are literate. The village
population is predominantly Hindu, with ~27% of people belonging
to the schedule castes category and less than 1% belonging to the
schedule tribe (ST) category. A study by Sharma (2011) indicates
that agriculture in Hamirpur is predominantly subsistence and ce‐
real based and crop diversification towards the cultivation of cash
crops has been minimal. While ~75% of women in the study village
do agricultural work, only ~13% of the men are presently involved in
agriculture. This is in keeping with the trend of men across Hamirpur
increasingly diversifying into non‐agricultural work over the past
few decades (Sharma, 2009).
According to compensation records from the Himachal Pradesh
Forest Department, the distric t of Hamirpur has recorded 74 in‐
stances of leopard attack on humans, three of them fatal, between
the years 2004 and 2015. Furthermore, there were 239 instances of
leopard attack on livestock between 2010 and 2016. Notably, there
are no protected forests in the district of Hamirpur and the entire
leopard population resides in multi‐use landscapes (http://hpsamb.
The interviews with villagers and migratory shepherds were con‐
ducted within a 5‐km radius around the village. The study area was
chosen due to the availability of a co‐interviewer who could speak
the local dialect (Pahari), as well as the presence of pre‐established
social connections with multiple individuals in the village.
2 | MATERIALS AND METHODS
The ethnographic approach firstly comprised of several unrecorded
and unstructured conversations and observations, which created a
foundation for more intensive follow‐up. The primary interviewer,
who is also the first author of this paper, spent 4 months bet ween
October 2016 and January 2017 in the district, interacting with local
people whilst collecting leopard scat for a separate ecological study,
concerning diet. Af terwards, bet ween February and April 2017,
semi‐structured interviews were conducted with key stakeholders,
using a list of deliberated questions as reference points (Appendix
S1). Ethical approval was received from the Ethics Committee of the
Centre for Wildlife Studies and informed oral consent was gained
from all the participants to audio‐record the interviews. No personal
information was recorded that could potentially be used to trace the
A total of 23 semi‐structured interviews were conducted. Six in‐
terviewees were seasonal migrants: of these four were shepherds,
who drive their sheep to Hamirpur for the winter from higher al‐
titudes, and two were horse‐loggers (people who transport timber
within wooded areas using horses) from the neighbouring state of
Uttarakhand. 11 interviews were conducted with local villagers in‐
cluding: two former village heads (sarpanch); one Hindu priest; and
one pers on who is occasion ally called up on by the Forest De partment
to kill ‘man‐eating’ leopards. Four interviews with territorial forest
guards of Hamirpur, and two interviews with higher officials in the
Forest Department, were also conducted. Of the 11 interviews con‐
ducted with local villagers, female participants were present in six
interviews. One of the four interviews conducted with forest guards
was with a female participant . As there was no noticeable dif ference
between themes that emerged from male and female participants,
no distinction will be made with regard to gender in this paper.
Due to the ethnographic nature of the study, the interviewer
spent a substantial amount of time involved in everyday activi‐
ties such as farming, cooking and travelling in the landscape. The
participants selected were those who liked to talk and share sto‐
ries, regardless of their apparent ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ attitude
towards leopards. Some participants were interviewed more than
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DHEE Et al .
once as they required more time to grow comfortable talking to
the inter viewer, or desired to share further stories and knowledge.
The inter viewer was accompanied by a local, Pahari speaking co‐
interviewer to interview villagers and shepherds. The duration of
the inter views varied between 15 and 100 min depending on how
much the participants wanted to share. Also, inter views with indi‐
viduals often spontaneously transformed into group discussions,
as family members, neighbours and passers‐by took interest in the
The questions were selected and organized according to op‐
portunistic discretion exercised by the interviewers. Consequently,
questions were often asked which were not on the list, but emerged
out of the interview itself. The questions started out exploring the
nature of interactions that each participant had with leopards, and
then went on to detail the narratives that existed around them in the
landscape through myth, stories and the observed behaviours. In ad‐
dition, some questions that touched upon culture, policy, and other
factors which influenced human–animal dynamics in the landscape
were also explored.
Audio‐recordings of the interviews were directly translated
into English and transcribed. An inductive qualitative approach
was used to arrive at an understanding of the human–leopard dy‐
namics within our study site. Thematic analysis was conducted on
the transcribed data, whereby the emergent themes and narratives
related to leopards were identified and relevant data was manually
coded into each theme. Hermeneutic methods were used to bring
out the dominant narratives of how humans relate to the presence
of leopards in their landscape. Hermeneutic methods focus on in‐
terpreting meaning from written or spoken sources, and place em‐
phasis on interpreting them within the context of the environment
sults tr y to represent the depth of the relationship between leop‐
ards and humans within our study site. We present our results as
a series of narratives that emerged from the interviews. The five
main themes/narratives that emerged from the data have been or‐
ganized into the five subheadings within the discussion section of
this paper. Specific excerpts from the inter views have been used
to exemplify significant insights gained during the ethnographic
study. However, in order to make them understandable, we have
had to paraphrase and edit them considerably because of the chal‐
lenges of direct translation between languages.
2.1 | When the leopard is an everyday reality
The co‐habitation of humans and leopards in close proximity leads to
frequent encounters; these interactions contribute to how humans
perceive leopards and how they behave towards each other. This
provides scope for examining the nature of their everyday interac‐
tions and the way in which the participant s interpret and understand
Interviews revealed that our participants had numerous ex‐
periences with leopards and these rarely resulted in human injury
or human death, indicating that non‐aggressive human–leopard
interactions are more a norm than a rarit y in this landscape. The
interviews also showed how these non‐aggressive interactions, con‐
tributed significantly to participants’ understanding of the leopard
as a multi‐faceted animal beyond the unidimensional images of a
‘aadam khor’ (man‐eater) or menace that is often presented in the
media and popular literature (Hathaway et al., 2017). Rather, the
participants described the leopards as shy natured, fearful, quick,
elusive and clever creatures.
The frequency of neutral interactions between humans and leop‐
ards is revealing; not only of the leopard's nature but also of the humans
in the landscape. During the interviews, the shepherds and villagers gave
detailed descriptions of leopards and their behaviours, demonstrating
the keen observations that they had made of the animal ( Table 1).
Above are just some of the observations that are described by
most par ticipants and constitutes a body of knowledge that has
arisen due to the frequent interactions with leopards in that land‐
scape. It appears as if the par ticipants are interested in the animal
and obser ve it and learn about it in return. Their intimate knowledge
of their wild neighbour is in itself a very powerful contributor to the
inter‐species relationship ‘negotiations’.
Every participant we interviewed described the leopards as fear‐
ing human beings, although they recognized that they could be pro‐
tective of their prey if disturbed on a kill:
Sl no. Observation
1 They always bite at the neck of the prey animal
2 They drag away the prey and eat it somewhere else
3 They are solitar y animals, females and males only st ay together during the mating
season, and females remain with their cubs until they grow up
4 They stay in the cover provided by nullahs (forested stream beds) during the day and
emerge to hunt during the night
5They don't have a specific home/den but wander from place to place
6 They have a dis tinctive call, scat and scent (Though the description of the scent they
leave varied – from odours of sheep, meat, basmati rice and burnt hair to something
7 They walk very quietly and are well camouflaged in the surrounding
8 They hide while hunting (stalking), not revealing themselves until the last minute
TABLE 1 Observations about leopard
behaviours detailed by the participants
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Shepherd 1: Yes, he fears humans, but if you go in the
middle of his hunt, he will attack you
Shepherd 4: Everyone fears humans. Everyone is
careful about their safety. If he is eating something
and we inter fere, we will get attacked by the leopard
Such an understanding of the leopard, as an animal that is naturally
scared of humans and usually has justific ation for attacking humans
when people interfere with it, perhaps makes it easier for people to
share space, as they recognize that leopards are not just a bloodthirsty
predator out to kill people. It also indicates that the participants un‐
derstand these animals as having rules or patterns to their behaviour.
In the quotes above, the reason for the leopard to potentially attack
humans lies with the action of the human and specific circumstances
rather than the will of the leopard. It not only removes the ‘blame’ of
the attack from the leopard by producing tangible reasons that justify
the leopard's actions, it also ascribes a degree of predictability to the
Unlike the western cosmology which believes that humans pos‐
sess attributes that no other species possess, theories on animis‐
tic cosmologies propose that animistic cultures perceive humans
and other beings as ontologically equal. They therefore endow
non‐human beings with attributes such as consciousness, self, and
soul that are otherwise considered as uniquely human (Arhem &
Sprenger, 2016; Descola & Pálsson, 1996). Humans are understood
to be embedded within a network of non‐human beings, all interact‐
ing together in various ways and cohabiting in the landscape (Kohn,
2013). According to a Nayaka community in southern India a person
is defined as ‘one whom one shares with’ (Bird‐David, 1999). Notions
of ‘personhood’ are thereby ex tended to include animals, plants, and
occasionally even inanimate objects (Ingold, 2000). For example, ac‐
cording to Kohn (2013), the people of Avila, a tribe in the Amazonian
rainforest, ‘grant selves’ not only to other humans but all the beings
with whom they share space. Such extended notions of ‘person‐
hood’ allows for relationships of interagentivity between humans
and non‐human beings. Even though the people of rural Hamirpur
are not traditional animists the images of the leopard as described
by the shepherds we interviewed was extremely vivid and their un‐
derstanding of leopards held an essence of what Kohn calls ‘grant‐
ing selves’ and Ingold calls ‘notions of personhood’. The participants
spoke of leopards as thinking beings that consciously make decisions
to behave the way they do.
For example, in one interview, the shepherd described how the
leopard may wait to see if it gets an opportunity to take livestock
when they release them from their night‐time pens to graze during
day time. The shepherd also described an incident when he was
sitting among the pine trees and saw a barking deer, and a leopard
caught it but when the shepherd ran towards the leopard, it ran
away. The shepherd then described how he left the barking deer be‐
hind because he believed that if he took it away the leopard would
come and take a domestic animal from his herd. He also mentioned
that the leopards eat whatever they find, be it a dog or a deer.
Such descriptions indicate that there are many human charac‐
teristics that the participants ascribe to leopards including the abil‐
ities to process individual situations and respond to each specific
Shepherd 3: About 4 0 sheep were taken in one night
this year! Once the leopard gets a taste for sheep, he
will come every day. But when we chase him away
from our sheep he will understand that he will get
harmed if he comes back in this direction. Therefore,
he will be scared and stop coming our way.
The shepherd chase s the leopard away not only to save his she ep in
that instance but in the hope of instilling fear in the leopard so that he
would be scared of returning. As the leopard is an integral part of this
man's everyday life, he is in the habit of constantly and actively negoti‐
ating with the leopards to minimize livestock depredation.
A human being typically navigates relationships with other
human beings with an underlying assumption that the other can
think, learn and respond. C an we consider the possibility that hu‐
mans in some communities navigate relationships with non‐human
beings such as leopards without assigning a static predetermined
behaviour to the leopard and instead granting the possibilit y that
the leopard can learn, understand and respond to situations and en‐
vironments? What kind of human‐wildlife dynamics does this pro‐
duce? Ghosal and Kjosavik (2015) discuss the problems that arise
when the concept of ‘actors’ (defined by the possession of agency in
a landscape) is limited to humans. The description of leopards in the
interviews seemed to indicate that our participants consider leop‐
ards to be ‘actors’ rather than objects. Speaking to the par ticipants
introduced us to the leopard, not as a wholly instinct‐driven creature
but as a thinking being with whom they constantly negotiate space
and access to shared resources.
2.2 | The role of mythos in facilitating shared spaces
Greek philosophers rationalized the difference between mythos and
logos as referring to dif ferent kinds of meaning. Objective reality
would be approached through logos, the accumulation of observable
empirical knowledge, while my thos would provide insight into that
which is not tangible. Aristotle distinguished between Truth with the
capital ‘T’ and truth with the lower case ‘t’ and used the nomencla‐
ture ‘T’ruth to refer to objective truth and ‘t’ruth to refer to sub‐
jective truth. Science defined by its positivist intentions has always
been in the pursuit of ‘T’ruth. In extension, it is the ‘L’eopard (with
the capital ‘L’), which has been the focus of most scientific studies
so far. But in this paper, we are attempting to explore the subjective
leopard as experienced, perceived and understood by the people of
a landscape (the leopard with the lower case ‘l’).
around us and has been used by human‐kind for millennia to try
and explain the nature of human existence (Armstrong, 2006). The
human mind, with its capacity to think beyond the ‘reality ’ of what
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DHEE Et al .
is and imagine that which has never been sensed or experienced, is
constantly in pursuit of making sense of the world that surrounds it.
The mythologies of a landscape provide the mental frames for com‐
munities to function effectively in their environment. As explained
by Armstrong (2006, p. 4) in A Short Histor y of Myth ‘A myth is true
because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information.
If, however, it does not give us new insight into the deeper mean‐
ing of life, it has failed’. Human imagination which has more recently
allowed for scientific enquir y and technological progress has also
facilitated the complex mythologically oriented thought processes
(Armstrong, 2006, p. 1).
Mythology is inherently nonlinear, multifaceted and dynamic.
Unlike scientific theories, myths are not created in a manner that
follows a logical trail of thought but are rather influenced heavily
by cumulative leaps of imagination and insight that are sporadic and
untraceable (Armstrong, 2006). Asking questions about the atti‐
tudes formed in people as a consequence of myth might therefore
be far more fruitful than attempting to trace the origins of the myth
(Arms trong, 2006). My th is influenced by ma ny factors inclu ding
politics, social structure, religion, power and history, therefore a
myth about a leopard reveals insights not only into leopards but also
about the society in which it resides. As Armstrong (2006) explains,
there is no right, wrong or original version to a myth. It is constantly
in flux as it responds and reflec ts on the world in which it presides, it
changes through time, in accordance with the transitions of society
(Armstrong, 2006). As such, myths represent valuable insights into
the adapt ations that a society adopts to cope with external issues
that influence their lives, such as leopards.
The strong presence of myth in our study area made it possible
for there to be multiple narratives of the leopard rather than just
one. When we began to examine the subjective leopard as perceived
by the participants, we found that each participant understood the
leopard slightly differently from the others. The myths about leop‐
ards that had captured each person's attention were different and
the meaning that they had derived from each of these stories also
differed between participants. But this difference seemed subtle
in comparison to the stark contrast bet ween the ‘L’eopard that we
researchers had until then learnt about and the ‘l’eopards that the
participants introduced to us.
The title of the paper refers to a myth that we encountered
across the study landscape. The simple statement ‘Billi uski masi hai’
(The cat is the leopard's aunt), perplexed us every time we heard it.
From the shepherd to the forest official, everyone except the re‐
searchers, all of who were from urban India, seemed familiar with
the phrase and it was of ten brought up while describing the leopard.
Asking further questions about this statement produced associated
statements such as ‘Usko shikar karna billi ne hi sikhaya’ – Shepherd
1 (The cat taught the leopard how to hunt) and ‘Wo billi ka sir
nahi khata’ – Villager 10 (The leopard does not eat the cat 's head).
Eventually we got a complete story about the leopard and the cat
from the wife of a villager we interviewed. According to the story,
the leopard initially did not know how to hunt. That cat taught the
leopard the hunting technique of catching the prey by its neck. The
cat is personified as the leopard's aunt, specifically massi – a moth‐
er's younger sister.
Villager 8: The leopard asks the horse, ‘Uncle (cha‐
cha) if I want to hunt a horse, from where should
I attack?’ The horse told him that he has to attack
from behind, but when the leopard attacked the
horse from behind the horse kicked him and the
leopard went flying 8‐10 feet and fell in the ditch.
Therefore, horses never get caught by leopards,
wherever the leopard tries to attack from, the horse
will turn and kick from that side.
The leopard then went to the cat and asked, 'Aunty
(massi) how do you attack your prey?’ Unlike the horse
that led him astray, the cat showed him the right way
to hunt. The cat explained to the leopard 'Child, you
must attack at the neck (kukri)'. The cat is also of sim‐
ilar colour to the leopard. The cat is his aunt (massi).
In the context of India where large and extended families are
strongly significant in the social landscape (Nayak & Behera, 2014), the
specific relationship of aunt (massi) and nephew ascribed to the rela‐
tionship between the cat and the leopard can be considered notewor‐
thy. These relations ascribe a system of interconnectedness between
the beings that the people share their space with. Specifically, it shows
a belief that species barriers are permeable, and that individuals of dif‐
ferent species can be both closely related (family members) and can
Some par ticipants indicated a far greater reliance on myths in
their understanding of leopards, as compared to others. Among them
was an elderly migratory shepherd, who told us a great deal about the
‘l’ eopards as he knew them. A stor y that integrated detailed insights
into leopard behaviour and some of the origin my ths of Hinduism.
Shepherd 1: When Lord Shiva was distributing food
to all the dif ferent organisms in the world, the leopard
hid behind the yam leaf (arbi). He can be very small
when he wants, but when he is about to attack, he
can become very big as well. After Shiva distributed
food to all the living creatures, the leopard came out
from hiding and complained to Lord Shiva that he did
not get any food. To appease the leopard’s complaint,
Lord Shiva generously made all the best food in the
world available to him. So, he can eat whatever he
wishes to eat, but he is very protective of all that he
manages to catch.
2.3 | The double‐edged sword of religion
In most parts of India, the perceived will of the gods and the rules
and ethics dictated by religious institutions encircle people's
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DHEE Et al .
lifestyles, educational and professional choices, relationships, and
even eating habits! When this is the case, it is not a long stretch to
postulate that the at titudes of people towards institutions, societ y
and perhaps leopards can be influenced by religion (e.g. Li et al.,
Some animals gain great significance due to their symbolic
representation in religion. In India apart from the cow which has
gained paramount importance nationwide, especially in the pres‐
ent socio‐political context , many other wild animals are also con‐
sidered to be important from the religious standpoint. Rhesus
macaques as Hanuman (Saraswat, Sinha, & Radhakrishna, 2015),
tigers and leopards as Wagh Dev ta (Ghosal & Kjosavik, 2015), el‐
ephants as Ganesha and bears as Jambuvan (Kosambi, 1966) are
just some examples of Hindu and tribal representations of wild
animals in India that justifies their existence through the religious
realm. If represented in a positive light, they could persuade local
communities to ensure that these species are protected or at least
not directly harmed.
Large cats are associated with gods in a variety of ways across
India. Wagobai sa t i g e r/ l e o p a r d de i t y w o r s h i p p e da c r o s s M a h ar a s h t r a
out of fear and reverence (Athreya et al., 2013). In the Sundarbans
ofIndiaandBangladesh,bothHindus and Muslimsassociate tigers
with the deity Bonbibi who is considered to be the protector of the
forest (Jalais, 20 08). Anthropological accounts across South Asia re‐
veal representations of leopards and tigers as protectors of people;
following people home on dark, dangerous nights and keeping them
safe against evil (Boomgaard, 2001; Newman, 2012). Speaking to the
local priest in our study area revealed a similar belief.
Villager 9: The leopards would walk behind people as
if to accompany humans. Like dogs they used to keep
walking behind. But the person is not supposed to
turn and look back. If you turn and look, he will attack.
If you don’t turn, he will keep walking. He will stay
with you all the way till your destination. Stay with
you as in, no one can surround you or steal from you,
dacoits [bandits] can’t surround you, and if someone
gets to you the leopard will face them.
The leopards are also regarded as the vehicle of the Goddess (Devi
Maa) that is commonly worshipped in Himachal Pradesh. We found
that the belief of leopards as protectors is profound, and it provides
a positive at tribute to the species. Such beliefs could lead to people
considering leopards as being not only accepted but also wanted and
appealing in their landscape. Ultimately it could lead to a positive in‐
terpretation of human–leopard interactions and therefore contribute
positively to human–leopard relationships.
However, the label ‘protector’ attributed to the leopard could
also be the reason for the use of leopard claws and teeth as a pro‐
tective device worn around the neck to ward off evil and take away
fear. Interviews with forest guards in Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh
revealed instances of dead leopards found in forested patches near
villages that had their claws and whiskers missing.
Thus, in this landscape, the belief that leopards protect people
and the belief in the protective powers of leopard nails are two sides
of the same coin. The sentiment of protection associated with leop‐
ards can contribute to a willingness in people to share space with
leopards while simultaneously leading to a demand for leopard body
parts, which can potentially lead to poaching. Therefore, caution
needs to be exercised when using religious or cultural beliefs to pro‐
2.4 | How did the leopards come here? It's a
My th ol og yiss tillac tivelyusedin th em od er nw or ld tohelppeo‐
ple cope with the world around them, and many of the narratives
that people share with each other can be viewed as a modern‐
day mythology (Armstrong, 2006). It is increasingly understood
that human–wildlife conflicts often have their roots in human–
human conflicts (Redpath et al., 2013). Pooley et al. (2017) ex‐
plains that human–human conflicts, conflicts between different
institutions and individuals within society, can be major drivers
of human–wildlife conflict. For example, retaliatory killing of
wild animals could be understood as an act of aggression by local
people revealing their strained relationship with the govern‐
ment, rather than a direct reaction to the economic loss faced
due to incidents of livestock depredation (Gandiwa, Heitkönig,
Lokhorst, Prins, & Leeuwis, 2013). Mathur (2014) describes
the bureaucratic atmosphere in the neighbouring state of
Uttarakhand, India surrounding the events of leopard/tiger at‐
tacks on human beings. The processes of economic and political
pressures that define the institutional response to the events,
the policies that bind the Forest Department, the ways in which
these responses are then interpreted by the local people, and
the conflicts that arise from the strained relationships between
the different segments of society all redefine the relationship
We found that there were popular conspiracy theories (modern‐
day myths) in our study area pertaining to the presence of the ani‐
mals in the human‐dominated landscapes. These theories proposed
that the Forest Department has allegedly released leopards from
zoos into the surrounding landscape. Participants explained that
the leopards were perhaps released as a security measure that had
been implemented to prevent timber extraction from the forested
areas in the landscape. Interestingly, Bhavishkar (2000, p. 113) de‐
scribes a similar belief she encountered in Kullu District of Himachal
Pradesh, indicating that such beliefs are perhaps present across the
larger landscape rather than restricted to the study site. According
to the participants’ understanding, the leopards were released by
the forest department with the intention of scaring the villagers out
of the forested areas. The villagers and shepherds we interviewed
almost unanimously referred to the present leopards in the land‐
scape as ‘paltu’ meaning ‘domesticated’ as opposed to the ‘junglee’
or ‘wild’ leopards that have always existed in the landscape (also see
People and Nature
DHEE Et al .
Shepherd 1: The leopards are released here from the
zoo. They have a chip in their ear through which the
government tracks the leopard’s movements. It is used
to identif y the people who are killing the leopards. But
there is no record of it. The first time leopards were re‐
leased by the Forest Department (janglat), some peo‐
ple used poison or guns to finished them off. But as the
leopard numbers reduced, the government released
more of them from the zoo. The government leaves
them here so that the forests are cared for/protected.
Due to this, women won’t go alone into the forest.
(Buta) trees will keep growing if the leopard is in there.
As such descriptions of a ‘conspiracy theory’ made us curious, we
asked the Forest Department personnel whether they had heard similar
accounts and how they understood such claims. We learnt from the in‐
terviews with the forest department officials and guards that although
there has never been an instance of a zoo leopard being released into
the wild in Himachal Pradesh, there have been some instances where
a leopard that was captured when found in a human‐dominated area
had been released elsewhere. Partial knowledge about such incidents
could spre ad across the landscape over time and eventually morph into
the conspiracy theory that presently exists.
The belief that the present leopards have been released by the
Forest Department, attributes the ‘ownership’ of the leopards to the
department. The animal therefore becomes an instrument of the gov‐
ernment's intentions, thereby placing the blame of any harm done by
the leopard in the hands of the Forest Depar tment. The argument
made by most of the villagers and shepherds we interviewed is that
the ‘domesticated’ leopards are habituated to human beings and are
therefore not scared of humans. The human at tacks by leopards are
often ascribed to this difference in the character of leopards.
Through such narratives the participants reveal co‐existence of
not just human‐animal or nature‐culture but also of complex and
contradictory perceptions of leopards. The same person can hold
within himself/herself contrasting and indistinguishable images of
the same being, metonymically represented as the junglee leopard
that protects and the paltu leopard that attacks.
It is possible that this is a way the participants have found to make
sense of the dissonance they are experiencing due to the difference be‐
tween the leopard that their myth, religion and culture tells them about
and the leopard that they are currently encountering in their lifetime. Such
conspiracy theories of large predators (and snakes) being secretly released
by governments or conservation NGOs are becoming global and represent
a fascinating insight into how people give expression to their conflictual
relationship with authorities and explain perceived changes in animal be‐
haviour when they return to landscapes after periods of absence (Skogen,
2.5 | Bureaucratic discretion
In our inter views it was also apparent that hunting, timber ex‐
traction, encroachment into forests, and many other such illegal
activities persist, despite awareness in the villages about the illegal‐
ity of such activities. The participants hesitated to talk about inci‐
dents of hunting because they were aware of the fact that it was a
punishable offence. However, during the interviews it also became
clear that even though the incidents of hunting or timber extraction
do not get officially recorded, their occurrence is well known within
the rest of the community.
On one of the days during fieldwork, we came across a band of
people m oving within Dema rcated Protect ed Forest land in Ha mirpur
with a pack of dogs. Speaking to participants in the vicinity revealed
that they were hunters from a nearby area who had probably gone in
search of wild meat. Conversations with the participants in the area
over the period of the day revealed that almost the entire village
that surrounds that patch of forest was aware of the hunting and
knew who the hunters were. Neither a plan nor a need to report the
hunting/hunters to a government authority was mentioned by the
participants during any of the conversations on that day. A few peo‐
ple also mentioned during this incident, that the Forest Department
guard is also usually aware of such incidents since he or she belongs
to the very same village/community but does not choose to report it
to higher authorities. For instance, the local Forest Guards explained
that even though the public knew that activities such as hunting and
felling trees were illegal, in the circumstance wherein the entire vil‐
lage was willing to carr y out the illegal ac tivity, it could be kept secret
to prevent anyone from the outside knowing about it.
Although the leopard is viewed as the goddess' vehicle, is as‐
sociated with the deity and considered a protector, its status as a
protector has led to people believing that wearing the claws of the
leopard can protect them as well. They are aware that it is illegal to
wear the claws, and there is no evidence to indicate that leopards are
being poached to procure the claws. Nevertheless, the seemingly
widespread possession of leopard claws in the region is indicative of
a willingness in the community to carryout behaviour that is illegal
as per the formal law but sanctioned by social and cultural norms
(Von Essen, Hansen, Nordström Källström, Peterson, & Peterson,
2014). This indicates that awareness about the illegality of certain
behaviours and actions is perhaps not sufficient in curbing that be‐
haviour. Furthermore, field level implementation of the hierarchi‐
cally disseminated policy by the forest guards is complex and layered
with interpersonal and social dynamics, since they live as part of the
same communities over whom it is their responsibility to enforce the
law (Vasan, 2002).
3 | CONSERVATION IMPLICATIONS
Two broad approaches can be considered in response to the pre‐
sent circumstance of conservation revealed in our study. The first
approach involves a replacement of the present hierarchical sys‐
tem of policy enforcement with Community‐Based Conservation
interventions wherein local populations participate in the manage‐
ment and governance of their ecological landscape (Dressler et
al., 2010; Peterson, Russell, West, & Brosius, 2010).The success of
People and Nature
DHEE Et al .
Community‐Based Conservation interventions has been questioned
repeatedly, but a reorientation towards the inclusion of culture and
social institutions within the framework has been proposed to in‐
lated by Vasan (20 02) involves the reconceptualization of policy and
implementing mechanisms within the existing hierarchical systems
such as the forest department, recognizing the compulsions and re‐
quirements of the implementers. Both the approaches converge in
recognizing the need to consider the specific socio‐cultural context
in the process of conceptualizing and implementing the conservation
framework for a landscape (Berkes, 2004; Vasan, 2002).
Conser vation action addressing issues related to human–leop‐
ard interaction has so far been predominantly techno‐managerial
involving measures such as trapping the leopard, killing it, setting
up rescue centres and providing monetar y compensation. This study
raises questions about whether these techno‐managerial strategies
are sufficient to address the multifaceted complexities in the way
people who share space with the leopards respond and live with the
animal (Naughton‐Treves, Grossberg, & Treves, 2003). This ques‐
tion becomes more pronounced in rural landscapes such as that of
Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh which are strongly influenced by cul‐
turally informed knowledge systems (as opposed to formalized sci‐
entific knowledge systems). The values ascribed to each being were
not always stated or discussed explicitly in any structured manner.
The relationship with leopards that the people in Hamirpur describe
is not solely based on the prescription of the Wildlife Protection
Act or the formal academic descriptions they learnt in books or via
television. Rather, they display attitudes that reside implicitly in their
society, and which are apparently governed by personal experience
and the dynamic, constantly evolving, myths and stories that are
pervasive in the landscape.
The most important finding for conservation lies in the way
that participants generally viewed leopards as complex individ‐
uals with whom they could ‘negotiate’ the sharing of space. This
interaction was also similar to how these participants acted to‐
wards local representatives of the management authorities in
terms of informally negotiating access to forest resources. In
both cases there appeared to be a willingness to coexist, given
the existence of some flexibility and scope for reciprocity. This
is a classic example of the need to balance top‐down objectives
with bottom‐up approaches (Redpath et al., 2017). Such ap‐
proaches have been institutionally hindered in India both by a
lack of tradition for it and a lack of resources and training among
Forest De partment s taff (Mille r,2017). Ho wever,it i s becom‐
ing increasingly apparent that conserving wildlife in multi‐use
shared landscapes in India will require the adoption of a wide
range of diverse and locally adapted approaches. The villagers
in our study landscape demonstrated an amazing degree of ac‐
ceptance for their wild and potentially dangerous neighbours.
The main challenge for authorities is to understand the nature of
this accept ance and cultivate it. The integration of the modern
myth about the recent release of leopards into the landscape
with a much older mythology that touches on some of the cen‐
tral elements of mainstream Hinduism illustrates how dynamic
these cultural relationships can be. Conservationists are thereby
challenged with comprehending the contradictory imaginations
of the leopard as they coexist within a landsc ape, and perhaps
even within an individual. In the face of rapid social change in
India there will be a need for continuous efforts to understand
and react to changes in the cultural relationship that rural peo‐
ple maintain with the wildlife that shares their landscape and
the authorities that regulate this relationship. While the findings
from our site are broadly similar to those documented further
how generalizable they are to other settings.
Our study shows how complex the underlying factors can be.
Far more research of a similar type is needed, and it underlines the
importance of studying human–animal relationships through the
complimentary lenses of multiple disciplines. This approach to the
study of human‐animal relations should be more widespread in con‐
servation, and not merely restricted to ‘traditional’ or ‘indigenous’
Vijay Kumar Dhiman, Vinod Kumar, Samiha Shaji, Sharma Uncle Ji,
Himachal Pradesh Forest Department, Admin Center for Wildlife
Studies, Wildlife Conservation Society, the people of Hamirpur.
JDCL's involvement was funded by the Research Council of Norway
(grant s 201693 and 251112).
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
The authors whose names are listed certify that they have no af‐
filiations with or involvement in any organization or entity with any
financial interest or non‐financial interest in the subject matter or
materials discussed in this manuscript.
Dhee, Vidya Athreya, John D. C. Linnell, Shweta Shivkumar and Sat
Pal Dhiman conceived the ideas and designed methodology. Dhee
and Shweta Shivkumar collected the data. Dhee analysed the data.
Dhee, Vidya Athreya, and John D. C. Linnell led the writing of the
manuscript. All the authors have contributed critically to the drafts
and have given final approval for publication.
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How to cite this article: Dhee D, Athreya V, Linnell JDC,
Shivkumar S, Dhiman SP. The leopard that learnt from the cat
and other narratives of carnivore–human coexistence in
northern India. People Nat. 2019;00:1–11. h t t p s : //doi.