Luna – the Urban Leopardess

by | Oct 10, 2016 | 0 comments

I looked at the image, my hands trembling. She stood there, regally, at the edge of the frame, as the moon hung over her. I was hit by the familiar thrill that overtook me each time I saw her majestic figure. It had been two years since I first saw her. A chance incident in 2014 had led us to this point. When I was monitoring man-animal conflict in Mumbai, I heard stories of an almost grown up leopard cub and her mother roaming in Aarey Colony, Mumbai. That cub is an adult, independent leopardess now.

When I first saw Luna, I did not know that this tawny leopard would stand as testimony to the world that coexistence between leopards and man in urban spaces is possible. The wonder of it was instantaneous, however, here was a leopard that did not stand as an aberration against the cityscape. She seemed to meld into the urban, human inhabited area of Aarey Colony – a place she considered her home.

My team and I knew almost immediately that we would come looking for this leopard (whom we had named Luna, in a moment of inspiration). The more we trailed her, the more fascinated we grew. Luna seemed to be the epitome of natural selection, before us was a leopard who had been brought up and had thrived in an urban landscape. Here she had learnt the ways of its other inhabitants- humans. She knew that where humans roamed during the day, was her home at night. She snaked out of human hovels without anyone so much so as hearing a sound. A small man-made waterhole, was her source of drinking water, and stray dogs and pigs, her kill. She had learnt to make peace with humans, who were largely unaware that in the greenery around their houses, lived their feline neighbour.

Incidents like these aren’t unheard of. Take, for example, the iconic mountain cougar, P22, who crossed two of the biggest freeways in USA to establish his own territory. The feat of crossing two long and busy freeways had a tremendous impact on the imagination of naturalists worldwide. His iconic move from the mountains of Santa Monica to Griffith Park was the first recorded instance of such a magnitude. This route comprises the iconic Bel Air and Beverly Hills- all of which P22 crossed without disturbing any humans!

But while P22 returned to the forested area of Griffith Park, Luna’s forest is our urban jungle. The more we studied her, the more she marveled us. Luna had adapted so fully to urban civilization that she has become part of urban landscape. So much so, that if released into the wild, she will probably be unable to survive. For one, the transformer that stands behind her, the houses that humans inhabit, and the sounds and lights of human civilization have become her own. The equipment we set up to capture her movement and behaviours were often marked by her, as she has came to accept these strange elements as part of her ecosystem.

Another worrisome thought lies in her relative inefficiency to hunt agile wild animals, as compared to her non-urban cousins. Luna’s prey is composed of stray animals- which make for easier hunt than wild herbivores. If left into the wild (as people who mistake her for a threat would want authorities to do) she would probably not be able to hunt and starve. In fact, rather ironically, it is the very people who want the forest view but not the inhabitants of the forest in their backyard who serve as the producers for Luna’s ecosystem. Due to a largely inefficient garbage disposal, garbage sites attract dogs and pigs. They are in turn consumed by Luna.

Insofar, Luna has changed the definition of ‘wild’ as we know it: the ‘wild’ is no longer the forested, vicious or unknown- the ‘wild’ that Luna epitomizes is one that has reclaimed urban spaces without disturbing its human occupants. Some of us who have sensed her presence have gotten accustomed to it.

When rare instances of conflict occur, they put these animals in jeopardy. Many well-adapted leopards are put into enclosures, or in worse scenarios, are caught in traps laid for other animals. In March 2016, Chandni, a lame female leopardess had been ensnared and subsequently died, in Aarey Colony itself. She left behind a young leopard cub. I shuddered at the thought of something similar happening to this beautiful leopard.

Like Chandni, Luna has also bred successfully. She has brought up her cubs to recognize and adapt to the familiar Mumbai skyline, the lights and noise, and mostly, humans. Luna has taught her cubs well, I thought, as I looked at a photo of Luna and one of her cubs. She was sprawled beneath the night sky, her back facing the camera. Her cub was in a playful mood, staying close to his mother. There was slight wariness towards the world she was bringing him up in. Up in the sky was Orion: it was a perfect night sky.

The startling harmony between man and leopard is yet another instance of how Mumbai is unlike any other city in the world. This is perhaps the only metropolis in the world with big cats living right in the middle of the city. The urban leopards of Aarey Colony, which is a human development, designed to house cowsheds in a 12 sq.km green patch, have adapted very well to the residents of Mumbai. Usually, they avoid interactions with humans and move silently at night when human activity decreases. But it is not uncommon to see a big cat on the roads of Aarey between dusk and dawn.We have been following this particular leopardess for quite some time now – right from when she herself was a cub moving with her mother to this date, when she has become a mother of two cubs. She has made Aarey her home and is absolutely used to the human dominated landscape around the National Park. A bold animal by nature, she crosses a high traffic, high speed road regularly along with her cubs and moves right up to the south-western edge of Aarey which is occupied by slums and city towers. Here she is seen with her cub at an artificial waterhole created by local residents for dogs. The light filtering through the foliage comes from a house situated barely 50 meters away. It is remarkable how relaxed the pair seems despite the close proximity to human settlement. Subject- Leopard, Panthera pardus IUCN Status – Near Threatened

(as narrated to Stuti Pachisia)

This article is the third in a series documenting Nayan Khanolkar’s ongoing leopard tracking and camera-trapping exercise outside Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Read the next article of this series Chandni – a tragic story.

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