This study is placed in Hamirpur District of Himachal Pradesh, India, a rural landscape outside the realm of protected areas where humans and leopards have been sharing space since decades. Consequent to the long history of living beside one another the human-leopard relationship in the landscape is complex, dynamic and multifaceted. The aim of the study was to explore the factors other than socio-economics and ecology that contributes to this relationship. Specifically, the study seeks to understand the influence of intangible factors such as stories, religion and social dynamics on people’s perception of leopards.
An ethnographic research framework was used, consisting primarily of 23 semi-structured interviews with a range of stakeholders in the vicinity of a village in Hamirpur. Permanent village residents, migratory shepherds and forest department personnel were the main stakeholder groups interviewed in this study. The qualitative thematic analysis of the interviews was conducted using an inductive framework i.e. instead of identifying themes prior to analysis, the themes that emerged from within the transcripts were identified, compiled and substantiated using extant literature.
The study revealed that participants’ description of leopards arose out of knowledge that was based on experience as well as being culturally informed. Many participants described leopards to be adaptive beings that are capable of responding to specific situations rather than purely instinct driven animals. Their descriptions revealed a tendency of attributing to leopards, characteristics such as conscious thought, self and kinship that are typically attributed only to humans within western cosmology. Participants shared several myths and stories featuring leopards, including a contemporary conspiracy theory about the release of “domesticated” leopards by the government into the surrounding landscape, and illustrated how locally present narratives shape their perception of leopards. Narratives such as the conspiracy theory also brought to light the human-human tensions between stakeholders and exemplified a way in which human-animal dynamics are affected by human-human conflicts. This study illustrates the significance of locally present narratives in molding the relationship between humans and animals within shared landscapes, consequently underlining the possible shortcomings of looking at human-animal dynamics only through the narrow lenses of ecology or socio-economics.