The Wild West of Pune: hyenas, leopards and wolves share space with humans

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Three carnivorous species – leopards, wolves and hyenas – have been found sharing space with human beings in semi-arid areas of Pune district outside national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. In 2019, a study by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) found that striped hyenas occupied 75% of the semi-arid landscape, followed by Indian gray wolves (64%) and leopards (57%) in western Maharashtra. According to the Forestry Department, sightings of hyenas have increased, with wildlife enthusiasts also noticing these animals.

It was Baramati MP (MP) Supriya Sule who first brought hyenas to light by sharing photos of active hyena dens on the outskirts of Pune. Hyenas have been spotted in Pune-Ahmednagar, Pune-Solapur, Jejuri, Saswad, Morgaon and Baramati areas of the district.

Visits by wildlife experts to potential hyena dens have led to the discovery of numerous other active hyena dens on the outskirts of Pune, where a healthy population of hyenas has been found. Hyenas feed on dead poultry and often feed on discarded carcasses outside villages. Besides poultry, they also feed on dead dogs and dead livestock.

Independent filmmaker, conservationist and founder of The Grasslands Trust, an NGO focused on research, protection and conservation of hyenas, Mihir Godbole, said: “Hyenas are among the most intelligent, social and caring animals, but also most misunderstood. Even though they have been reviled by humans and culture as demonic and crafty scavengers, they are crucial to the well-being of their habitat. Hyenas are scavengers that survive on dead animals and pose no threat to humans.

Hyena species found in India clean the ecosystem and are harmless to human beings. “We have a good population of hyenas around Pune and they coexist peacefully with leopards, wolves and other animals. They feed on rotting matter and never leave rotting meat lying around to spread disease. It is for this reason that they are called ecosystem cleaners. They have small family groups and use dens to give birth to their young. They are harmless animals and we have a good population of hyenas in and around Pune including the city limits. Pune has always been a hotspot for hyenas and as the city grows they move further and further away from the city,” Godbole said.

Pune Deputy Conservator of Forests, Rahul Patil said, “NGOs and the Forestry Department are working jointly on several projects for the protection and conservation of wild animals like leopards, hyenas and wolves and their habitats. We will further expand conservation methods by adopting best practices for the preservation of important wildlife species.

The hyena population of Pune is concentrated in the agriculture dominated landscape comprising of private farmland, forest land and pasture land. Wildlife enthusiasts warn that hyenas in Pune face multiple threats including habitat loss. Rapid urbanization on the outskirts of the city is destroying the natural habitat of all grassland animal species, including hyenas.

Meanwhile, northern parts of Pune district including Ambegaon and Junnar tehsils reported large numbers of leopards. There have also been instances of human-wildlife conflict due to shrinking forest space for these big cats.

In March, a rare leucistic Indian fox was sighted in Solapur, the neighboring district of Pune. The sighting was recorded by Shivanand Hiremath from Akkalkot Grassland. According to wildlife experts, this is the first time such a species has been spotted in the country. It is smaller than a fox and measures between 50 and 60 cm long. It basically keeps the rat population under control and is beneficial for farmers. “I found the species in March and registered it with the Forest Department. This is the first time this species has been found and it is completely white in color with only the tip of its tail colored The fox lives on land or in burrows and feeds on berries, insects and small animals,” said Hiremath, also a wildlife photographer.

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