Living with leopards – conflict or coexistence?
In 2012, a woman was attacked by a leopard and subsequently killed, in Aarey Colony. The attack elicited a violent mob response, where residents of the colony demanded that the leopard be captured and translocated. A few days later, a young eight-year old boy was also attacked. His father, a Warli tribesman, managed to rescue him from the leopard, and the boy survived. This man was the woman’s neighbour, and much like the woman, had spent all his life in close proximity with the leopards.
Much later, when I meant to mark it as another story of man-animal conflict, I was unconsciously preparing myself for sensitively counselling the man. I realized what I had been doing, when I met the man. He expressed no hatred towards the animal. I was extremely taken aback, to say the least. We sat in his small house in the tribal hamlet that had paintings of nature on the walls. When I expressed my confusion, he told me something I carry with myself to this very day: “I have seen them since my grandfather’s time. I do not bear any grudge against them.”
On the contrary, 200 meters away, are tall buildings where the new residents of Aarey Colony live. They have the luxury of electricity, spacious rooms and a forested view. Most of them paid extra for the latter, but did not account for the leopards which come with the view. For them, despite posing no direct threat, the leopards of Aarey Colony are an unwelcome presence.
During my subsequent study in the tribal hamlet, I recorded five leopards moving in and out of the hovels. They moved at night, casting large shadows on the walls decorated with local art. At no point did they come as a surprise to any of the locals, not even the father whose son had been in the midst of conflict. He told me, very calmly, that the leopard that attacked his son was not ‘theirs’. It was an outsider, a translocated leopard. The man said, “I have grown up with these leopards. I recognize them and they recognize us. No leopard of ours, of this land, would attack us. The leopard which attacked my son and my neighbour had been displaced.”
As biologists would attest, he was not wrong. Under normal circumstances, no leopard that has adapted well to his surroundings and his neighbours would attack them. The urban leopards of Aarey Colony have built a home there. To spread their roots and thrive in this urban jungle, they have made peace with the humans. If anything, the violence showcased by leopards is in most cases manufactured by man himself.
The residents who want the leopards removed fail to recognize that they may not be able to thrive in a remote jungle. Their home is in the lights and sounds of the city, just like any city-dweller. If the leopard is moved to another location, it may carry imprints of being manhandled and then display aggression in the new terrain. This may result in it harming the inhabitants of that area. If nothing else, we must all remember that wanting to remove the leopard emanates from a place of extreme fear. In the long run, this fear jeopardizes the entire ecology. The leopard, as the apex predator, represents a healthy ecosystem. We are all dependent on this ecosystem for our personal well-being. If the leopards survives, we survive. If the leopards disappear, we disappear. If we fail to develop ecological understanding for these magnificent beasts, our end is inevitable.
To city-dwellers, the leopards’ dark spots seem to overpower their golden skin. The leopard becomes a symbol of fear, and we only fear what we do not understand. The tribals have grown up with leopards crisscrossing their boundaries, reminding them that we are all children of the forests. They understand, and they see the light that shines off the coat of the leopard. They have painted them, worshipped them, and built their lives around them. That is why, when I walked into a home, expecting to be told tales of leopard as the devil, I found age old wisdom. This was a lesson everyone with access to computers can take home: leopards are a part of us. It only takes a looking at this, a Warli wedding invitation to know that.
(as narrated to Stuti Pachisia)
This article is the fifth in a series documenting Nayan Khanolkar’s ongoing leopard tracking and camera-trapping exercise outside Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park.