Leopards of Mumbai – a conflict history
Tigers once shared space with leopards where now the sprawling metropolis of Mumbai with its 2.8 million human residents sits. But the tigers went locally extinct about 87 years ago in Mumbai. Hunting, poaching, rising human population, habitat destruction and degradation and human-animal conflict effectively achieved this. But, amazingly, leopards held on, ever adapting to the fast paced changes wrought by humans. Over 35 leopards thrive in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, a unique forest that sits in the middle of one of the most populated cities in the world. Thrive because, they are able to hunt, mate and reproduce successfully in the most remarkable and challenging circumstances.
In just the past 50 years, leopards’ original geographic range has been usurped and destroyed by 80 % in Eurasia, and over 60% in Africa. The leopards in Mumbai are jostling for space with more than 300,000 people who reside within the precincts of the national park. This predicament of the big cats is a teaser of what is going to happen or already happening the world over – more and more human encroachment and shrinking leopard habitats.
SGNP has seen relatively consensual co-existence between humans and the cats ever since humans first ventured here. Leopard attacks instances were recorded far and in-between. But, in the course of time, severe encroachment around the periphery of the park left the cats with little space. SGNP forest is almost islanded due to lack in hardly any corridors or passages connecting with other forests. Leopards are known to cover up to 10 miles a day and are territorial. So, some of them are bound to spill out into the neighbouring human settlements. Despite the proximity to humans, they have preferred avoiding and coming in conflict with them, unless provoked or under stress.
As Mumbai’s scenario was unfolding, so were the leopard-human conflicts in other places in the state of Maharashtra. Unfortunately, back in the 1990s, the rise in the leopard attack-induced injuries and fatalities spurred the forest department to intervene. In the light of poor understanding of the leopards’ psychology and behaviour, relocating of ‘problem’ leopards from other places in the state to SGNP saw a spate of leopards attack humans. More than 170 attacks were reported between 1991 and 2013. The image of the leopards suffered a massive blow. Locals demanded entrapping the leopards on even sighting one. Several leopards straying into the localities were captured and relocated. Some are still languishing in cages at the rescue and rehabilitation centre. But as the translocation of the leopards ceased by 2006, leopard-man conflicts also subsided substantially. From this,we got a sense of leopards’ complex psychology and learned that simple capturing and translocation of leopards wouldn’t work. By bringing in newer leopards into the park, the already existing leopards and their demarcated territories left them to fight for food and space. Unfamiliar surrounding sleft them stressed and disoriented.
The history of human encroachment of the national park has been ugly. Over 50 illegal settlements were noted inside the park as of 2014. Illegal huts, pucca house structures and shanties keep coming up despite the forest department’s efforts to keep the protected area clear of such intrusions. More than 15,000 such illegal structures have been recorded in the park since 1995. The SGNP authorities have been resorting to encroachment removal drives to contain this illegal encroachment. Those locals who have been eligible or those who have been staying legally within the park from before 1995, but had to be evicted, are provided with the necessary rehabilitation and resettlement provisions. But the illegal encroachers far exceed the number of those eligible.
The reality is, violations of varied nature have been key factors that have amplified the human-leopard conflict here. Over the years, with increasing number of buildings and slums coming up at the periphery of the park, the amount of garbage collecting here is risen exponentially. Stray dogs are naturally attracted to the garbage dumps and come here and even breed. With the increasing number of dogs, leopards have become inclined towards hunting them for food as they are much easier to stalk and hunt. So much so that, analysis reveals that today, stray dogs constitute 60% of the diet of the SGNP leopards. Their diet otherwise ideally includes wild boars, spotted deer and even rodents. In the course of time, leopards here have adapted enough to change their diet. This is also believed to be due to the shortage of prey density within the park. Mumbai’s perennial problem of waste management, one could say, has had far reaching effects that go beyond hygiene and health issues. It has managed to alter the diet of the city’s leopards.
In recent years, Aarey Milk colony that lies adjacent to the south of SGNP, has been in the news for increasing leopard sightings in the area as well sporadic leopard attacks. In 2012, a 50-year-old woman, resident of Aarey Colony was fatally attacked by a leopard when she was out relieving herself. Forest Department and wildlife experts have time and again warned of the perils of venturing out after dark and worst, crouching on the forest floor. A leopard often mistakes a crouched person to be a smaller animal and attacks, only to realize it is a human and this often ends bad for both parties. Attack by a powerful top predator will inflict life-threatening injuries and the leopard then has to face the angry retaliation by the locals.
Losing habitats to humans isn’t the only threat leopards face in Mumbai. On March 20, 2016, Chandni, a six-year-old leopard’s body was found in Aarey Colony, victim of wire snare trap. Her cub has been missing since. Twenty feet from the spot of her death, another snare trap lay in wait for another victim. Poaching menace only ends up aggravating the man-animal conflict in a series of ripple effect. Orphaned cubs and even grown leopards on sustaining injuries from poaching traps are rendered disabled and may venture close to people. Leopards venturing into human territories only leads to more resentment among the locals and villagers.
On analysing, it is clear that most of the conflict situations with leopards can be avoided with simple mitigation measures strictly put into place. But, it is also clear that Mumbai lacks the will to do so. A species with which Mumbai residents have long coexisted is in deep trouble. SGNP is a significant stronghold of the leopards, but every mitigation and protection measure needs to be rightfully implemented to combat man-leopard conflict.
Leopard’s genius ability to adapt and tolerate humans seems to be a blessing from an evolutionary point of view. But with heavy persecution of the big cat from all sides by Man, is it more of a curse?
Purva Variyar is an Assistant Editor with Sanctuary Asia magazine, and has also interned with the Bombay Natural History Society. She has pursued a masters in Biological Photography and Imaging from the University of Nottingham, U.K. Next in this leopard series is Nayan’s personal experience with a leopard special to him called Luna. To read click here.