Co-existing with leopards in our backyard

During the COVID-19 lockdown, the reduced human movement encouraged animals to step out more comfortably prompting more leopard spotting, increasing man-animal conflicts

On August 9, a leopard made its way from Aarey forests to an abandoned warehouse in Andheri East. The animal was mapped, trapped and released back to the forests. This was one of the happier stories of man-animal interaction in a city like Mumbai.

Six leopards have been rescued from Mumbai Metropolitan Region since 2017 and dozens have strayed into human habitats. In July 2018, a man was hurt by a leopard, when he tried to save his pet dog in Mulund’s Rahul Nagar, on the periphery of SGNP. In January 2018, a leopard had entered a ground floor flat and clawed six people around the same area. Another leopard was found stuck in a play school at Andheri on the periphery of Aarey in December 2017.

Leopards were famously sighted at the Goregaon bungalow of actress Hema Malini (in January 2018 and May 2011) and at the Royal Palms Complex, an upscale residential complex right in the middle of Aarey forest.

That’s not surprising considering these contrasting sets of data. First, Mumbai is the most densely populated city in India. Second, it has the highest density of leopards in the country. 

Let that sink in.

About 47 leopards live within 103 sq kms in and around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in the north parts of the city, alongside the 1.28 crores of Mumbaikars.

Encroaching on leopard territory

Changing the perception of leopards from a man-eater to one that coexists around human habitation has been an evolving process for the city and its residents. 

Leopards are regularly sighted in the adivasi padas of Aarey forest and the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP). The adivasis worship them as “Waghoba” – the God who protects them. This was the inspiration for Mumbaikars for the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (MfSGNP), a joint initiative between residents and the forest department to mitigate man-animal conflict in the city. It came into exixtance in 2011.

Rapid urbanisation has ensured humans encroach spaces that belonged to animals.  “Roads are built right through leopard corridors. Roads have come up cutting right through wildlife sanctuaries like Tansa, Tungareshwar or even the SGNP thus blocking seamless movement for the leopards,” says Stalin Dayanand, Director, Vanashakti, a non-profit organisation. “How is a leopard to know if a structure suddenly turns up on his path that naturally and instinctively leads it to the next forest? He will continue frequenting that area” he adds.

Pic: Aarey Conservation Group (Facebook)

Lockdown and leopards

During the COVID-19 lockdown, the reduced human movement encouraged animals to step out more comfortably prompting more leopard spotting, according to Sonu Singh, an IT professional and volunteer at MfSGNP.

Leopards were spotted in areas usually not on their radar such as IIT-B campus, near Hiranandani complex at Powai, near Haware City Complex at Thane and around Film City. 

While initially the group played a reactive role in responding to instances of leopard sightings, it changed to a more proactive role.

MfSGNP conducted four awareness sessions including some on Zoom to help assuage fear among people, says Singh. Basic knowledge about leopards and certain preventive measures reduce scare-mongering about them.

“Leopards are attracted by stray dogs and animals. They are nocturnal, shy animals that avoid humans,” says Singh. “Precautions like not going alone for defecating in the forest area, not letting children stroll around after dark hours, playing music, carrying a torch or stick while walking alone during dawn or dusk and playing music on mobile should be taken,” says Singh. 

“Leopards will always be around in SGNP; we will always have to keep doing the same things, catching and releasing them. Hence adopting a strategy to create awareness among people living around leopards, became critical,” says Sunil Limaye, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (wildlife) of West Zone.

Honed territorial instincts

Leopards have strong territorial homing instincts, which means they tend to stay within their self-marked zones. They have existing social systems as well. Leopards tend to return to their territories from wherever they are let off.

Studies show that they rarely stay at the site of release. In fact, the policy of trans-locating leopards to other forests has enhanced the leopard-human conflicts.

Earlier, leopards that were caught in Mumbai were freed in the forests outside the city.

“Leopards which had been co-habitating peacefully with villagers started attacking people when they were released far away from their territory,” says Vidya Athreya, scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society-India (WCS-I). “This was likely due to the stress they face during capture, release in an unknown area. We also found many instances of translocated leopards homing back to where they were originally caught,” she says.  

In 2009, an old leopard named Ajoba walked 125 kms back to Mumbai over 25 days after being caught in Ahmednagar and released in Malshej Ghat. He then lived in Mumbai till his death in a  highway accident two years later.

“If the leopard has been captured only because it has been seen, it is best to release it as close as possible to its territory because we have management evidence that there is no problem later,” says Athreya. “They are very adaptable and therefore it is possible for them to live in rural landscapes, and eat domestic animals, dogs, and even rats” she adds.

Also, if one leopard is shifted out of its territory, another one tends to take over that zone.

Co-existance

The forest department has now reversed its policy and now free the leopards near their own territories. The MfSGNP project has now evolved beyond Mumbai with it being replicated and expanded to places like Palghar, Murbad, Tungareshwar etc. A similar model is also at work in Nashik, where leopards that attacked children have been caught by the forest authorities. 

Athreya is now coordinating with the Maharashtra government to monitor five leopards in Mumbai from January 2021 onwards by radio collaring them to track and study their movements in congested human dominated landscape to help frame state policies.

Athreya believes that the citizen initiative operational in Mumbai can be useful in other places like Bangalore, Uttarakhand, Jaipur, Guwahati etc

Activists suggest a long-term strategy would be to develop green bridges or corridors to help animals cross over roads safely. Dayanand says that developing such green bridges or corridors should be made mandatory while constructing major highways.  

Mumbai once used to be a tiger habitat. But, now we have completely wiped out the tiger from here; the last tiger spotted was in 1929.

Gopal Jhaveri of NGO Rivers March fears leopards might see the same fate if urgent action is not taken. “Merely putting up boards near highways about leopards won’t help,” he says.

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