Leopards of Mumbai

Few people can associate the bustling metropolis of Mumbai with forest and diverse wildlife, let alone the presence of a large cat in the by-lanes of the city.  Yet this unexpected situation exists in the middle of Mumbai with more than 35 wild leopards living in the centre of the city in Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Here you can see one of them on its nocturnal prowl

The Alley Cat

What’s urban today wasn’t so yesterday. The frame of civilization was put on a green patch of forest, which forms an unofficial buffer zone for Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai. Aarey Milk Colony is 12 sq km of cowsheds and human settlements today with its green heart still in place. While humans came, the big cats developed what humans would call manners. They operate in time slots, which make them virtually ghosts to their (not-so-new) neighbours. While most humans are unaware of the original citizens of this land, quite a few do. Thankfully those who do, have learnt to quietly appreciate the cultivated intelligence of these big cats, which has enabled them to co-exist. The Warli tribal to whom this house belongs is one of them. A Warli painting inside his house depicts a leopard demonstrating the quiet comfort zone, which allows him, and many tribals like him to coexist with the big cats in spite of their occasional too-close-to comfort encounters. It took the sole witness of camera trap right in his backyard and patience of 4 months to capture this unique man-leopard co-existence which perhaps exists nowhere else in the world!

The Urban Big Cat!

The leopard is the most persecuted big cat in the world. These felines are among the most adaptable and versatile large carnivores, occurring in a diversity of landscapes across India, wherever anti-hunting laws are enforced and cultural tolerance is higher. It took serendipity to get the elegance of a leopard with the moon and city elements together in a frame after eight months of camera trapping. This was after placement of multiple IR camera traps for more than a year to study leopard movement in Aarey Colony, in a suburb of Mumbai to zero in on an artificial water hole for dogs.

Mascots of Mumbai’s Wildlife

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, 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.

Living with Leopards – Conflict or Coexistence?

Despite sporadic leopard attacks on humans the tolerance of the native Warli tribe ensures cohabitation with leopards on the fringes of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai, which doesn’t have an effective buffer zone. The homes of the Warli tribe have traditional paintings of animal life, which are witness to the eternal respect that this tribe has for wildlife. When I heard the story of a Warli man who was comfortable with leopard movement in his porch where his son barely survived a leopard attack while a neighbor had not, I decided to install a camera trap to capture this unique man – leopard coexistence right at the spot where his son was attacked. While I got images of two different leopards entering in this alley, it took three months to get an image that I wanted – a leopard walking towards the camera through the alley! High-rise dwellers living adjacent to the park could use the empirical knowledge of native Warli tribe to learn how to co-exist with leopards thereby greatly reducing the man-animal conflict.