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Tracking tactful leopards on the prowl near human homes

Researchers tracking leopards found them to be quite good neighbors, despite their ability to tear other large mammals to shreds.

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The neighbors preparing for a barbecue?Wikipedia/snowmanradio

Over the eons, leopards have built up a reputation as speedy, stealthy and surprisingly strong predators. Yet today, thanks to GPS technology, a new study suggests that the big cats might actually make decent neighbors, despite their scary ability to jump 10 feet straight up in the air, sprint at speeds of up to 35 mph and climb trees while carrying prey even heavier than themselves in their mouths.

Scientists from Norway and India recently published their findings in the journal PLOS One after monitoring the movements of five radio-collared leopards captured near populated areas in India for up to a year following their release.

The study concluded that thinking of leopards near human-dominated areas as strays or "conflict" animals might be off-base, as the carnivorous kitties seem to go out of their way to avoid contact with people, mostly moving at night and staying away from homes during the day. None of the radio-collared leopards was involved in any serious conflicts with people, despite a few scenarios where things could quickly have turned ugly.

"On many occasions, the collared leopards were seen by people and were sometimes even chased by people, yet no fatal attacks occurred," the study reads, going on to credit this to the leopards' adaptability and an innate sense that attacking humans could lead to "high levels of retaliation."

One leopard's collar was removed, ending its participation in the study, when it actually entered a house and was recaptured.

The scientists argue that this apparent instinct of big cats to play it cool when they aren't in their own territory needs greater attention and study.

The study also suggests that capturing leopards near populated areas and then relocating them may not be as effective a strategy as it seems. Two of the tracked leopards in the study were relocated to more remote areas after capture, but neither stayed in those wilder areas. One traveled back toward the place it had initially been captured, while the other traveled a long distance in another direction.

"This indicated futility of translocation as a management strategy," co-author Vidya Athreya of the Wildlife Conservation Society - India said in a release. "This could have in fact, aggravated the conflict, as these animals passed through highly human-dominated (even industrial) areas."

The scientists aren't suggesting that we start building condos for leopards and welcoming them into our cities, but instead stress that active measures need to be taken to better understand how leopards interact with human settlements and to then use that information to prevent potential conflicts before they happen.

That said, I have to imagine that a party at the leopard condo would be pretty epic, though I don't recommend the raw wildebeest hors d'oeuvres. Guess we'll just have to settle for tracking our own cats' wanderings in the meantime.