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Predator on our porch

The only other city with large wild cats is Los Angeles.

The only other city with large wild cats is Los Angeles.  

If we can venture into nature to walk and picnic, why can’t leopards hang around our homes?

Luxurious condominiums on the edge of a megapolis which one promoter sold with the tagline — “where nature peeps through every window.” All the advantages of a modern lifestyle but with the added bonus of fresh air. The best of both worlds in Mumbai city. But nature isn’t greenery alone; it also includes wild animals.

While the view from the picture windows was easy on the eye, occasionally, what the unsuspecting newcomers saw made them gulp with nervousness. At dusk, wild cats the size of German shepherds leaped out of the adjoining forest on to the top of the peripheral walls and strolled nonchalantly. Sometimes, they lounged on ledges with their long tails twitching metronomes, oblivious of the many worried human eyes pinned on them. Their cold yellow predatory eyes turned black as their pupils dilated with failing light.

Some Mumbaikars paid a lot of money to see leopards on safari in Africa. But to watch them from one’s own home was disconcerting. These animals were out of line, stepping out of nature and into the city. Why did the leopards not stay within the 100-square kilometre Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP)? Perhaps, the leopards thought that if people could venture into nature to jog, walk, and picnic, why couldn’t they hang around apartment blocks. If people could enjoy nature, couldn’t nature savour humanity’s offerings?

A surprise in store

A few residents pulled levers of government through friends and family. They didn’t want the bold animals on show. Could the Forest Department capture and keep them in a safe place, they asked. If they expected employees of the department to wheel in large cages to trap leopards, they were in for disappointment. Instead, they received an invitation to a meeting.

The department’s staff in their trademark khaki did show up but the ones to hold forth were a group of young men and women. Representing a citizen-researcher-department initiative called Mumbaikars for SGNP, the volunteers spoke of leopard biology and management.

Capturing leopards is extraordinarily simple. These curious cats seem incapable of resisting a free meal, walking into baited traps without hesitation. But what happens later is complex. If released into the park, the cats make a beeline for their old haunts.

If held behind bars, neighbouring leopards move in. So catching them wasn’t a solution. The reason the felines are attracted to their residential community is prey: stray dogs that live off rubbish heaps. Taking care of the food source is the best course of action, the volunteers said.

The concept was hard to sell. When people were up in arms about the safety of their children, talking of waste management must have seemed frivolous.

Living with the wild

But the indefatigable volunteers taught them how to live with leopards — don’t walk alone after dark, supervise children when they are outdoors. They gave their phone numbers and offered to come again any time the residents had concerns.

Besides talking to anxious apartment inhabitants, some members of the group set camera traps in the park and knew several leopards as personalities. They named them Big Daddy, Kallu, and Kashi, and predicted their favourite haunts. While residents saw a scary leopard that could kill with its menacing canines, the volunteers recognised Paani, a harmless cat, from the distinct arrangement of spots on her fur. Anytime someone from the neighbourhood apartments called in a panic, they visited the area and kept an eye on the cat to make sure nothing untoward happened.

All in a day

While humans became watchful when they stepped out of their condominiums, the cats went about their usual routine — stalking the roads and dumps for dogs and giving people a wide berth.

Mumbaikars for SGNP also held workshops for the police and media, briefing them on how to respond to such events. This is more than a wildlife issue; it’s also a law and order problem that requires the police to intervene. The press could add fuel to people’s discomfort by framing the leopards as beasts from hell. Or it could counsel the public that leopards are not aggressors, out to get humans at every chance. Instead, the cats react to opportunity. Where there’s a food source, there’s something to eat it.

Mumbai is an unusual case — a high density of people, more than 25,000 per square kilometre, and a high density of leopards, approximately 22, plus or minus five, per 100 square kilometres. The only other city in the world with large wild cats is Los Angeles, where the Los Angeles Almanac says a dozen mountain lions live in the Santa Monica Mountains.

The voluntary initiative, set up in 2011, continues to maintain peace between people and leopards in Mumbai city. While some humans continue to hold on to the idea that leopards ought to respect man-made boundaries, the volunteers continue to receive phone calls — not with demands to remove the cats, but providing information. “There’s a leopard here. Do you want to take a photograph?” says Nikit Surve, a leopard biologist, mimicking a typical call.

Or housing societies that have heard about awareness sessions held in other complexes want one for their inhabitants. They may have condos with a view, and they’ve now learned to appreciate it.

Janaki Lenin is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 10:47:50 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/predator-on-our-porch/article19932633.ece

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