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Big cat, maximum city

A leopard on the prowl in Mumbai’s Aarey Milk Colony   | Photo Credit: Nayan Khanolkar

Entering a national park in India usually means crossing rivers, climbing mountains and trudging through forests and grasslands. But I know one national park that you can travel to in a packed local train. A gate appears by a flyover, and there you are. Welcome to Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in Mumbai.

Located in the midst of 20 million inhabitants, this forest is 30 times larger than Central Park in New York. It also happens to have around 35 leopards. This means that the highest density of leopards is to be found in the most densely populated city in the world.

“Look! There!” Too late. In spite of environmentalist Krishna Tiwari’s warning, I only catch a glimpse of a spotted tail plunging into the forest at SGNP. On the pillion of Krishna’s bike, after several weeks of investigation on city-park relationships, that was my first—and perhaps last—glimpse of a leopard as it crossed the road. Till then I sometimes doubted they lived here at all.

Living by night, stealthily grabbing a hen from a tribal hamlet, killing stray dogs or rodents near garbage dumps, Mumbai’s leopards are as territorial as they are elusive. They can jump the wall bordering the park—or simply slide through the gates and the holes in it. They are entirely at home in the bountiful supermarket that Mumbai is. Only camera trapping captures them regularly, sometimes just five metres from a human oblivious to the animal’s presence. Earlier this month, a widely shared CCTV video showed a leopard attack a dog at the Bombay Veterinary College after scaling a 7 foot wall.

Leopard attacks

At the peak of the human-leopard conflict in 2004, the big cats killed 19 people in Mumbai. The conflict has reduced , but not disappeared by any account: there have been at least 10 leopard attacks on humans (some fatal) in the last five years. The latest incident occurred just in May, when a three-year-old boy was attacked by a leopard when he was playing with his friends in Aarey Milk Colony, a Mumbai suburb. He fortunately survived, with injuries to his throat and chest.

Halfway across the world, in Nairobi, Kenya, a city of four million people, is a national park that similarly borders slums and is home to a fairly dense population of leopards (as well as lions, hyenas and hippos). But here, no wild animal has killed human beings in living memory. So how can this difference between Mumbai and Nairobi be explained?

In Nairobi National Park, too, leopards are also almost invisible, whereas lions, hyenas, rhinos are often spotted by tourists. Wildlife is more explicit in Africa, so to speak. Urban residents are used to living with it. They know that wildlife tourism is a key sector for GDP and jobs, unlike in India. The local pastoralists, Maasai, who live at the south of the park, are now part of the tourism circuit. While their cattle is often killed by carnivores, and Maasai sometimes retaliate by killing a lion or a leopard, on the whole, the complex livestock-wildlife-savannah ecosystem is not working too badly. The major threat is urban pressure, with road and railway projects destroying migratory routes and even encroaching on the park.

“Here, in this part of the cage, we put the bait—usually a goat. There the leopard or the lion can enter.” In Nairobi, Caporal Kereto, from Kenya Wildlife Service, explains to me how they capture dangerous animals. He is posing near the cage so that I can take a photo. While shooting, I recall my last visit to the SGNP: I had the privilege of visiting the place where “stray leopards” are kept, but the rule was strict: ‘No photo!’ This was far too sensitive a topic, since the Forest Department was accused of not ensuring the safety of citizens by allowing leopards to roam in urban neighbourhoods. It is true that the policy of translocating leopards into the SGNP had tragic consequences; as it has been shown by ecologists such as Vidya Athreya, “rescued” (captured) and translocated leopards are stressed, have lost their territory and may even become “man-eaters”. This policy has been more or less stopped now, and the human toll from leopard attacks has subsequently reduced.

It is true that in Nairobi the carnivores are less attracted to the city since the southern border of the park opens into savannahs where herbivores seasonally migrate.

This landscape contrasts with Mumbai where the national park is now fully encircled by urban sprawl. Here, leopards have lesser choice. The objectives of nature conservation may contradict the needs of a city.

Visible walls, invisible walls

A big challenge in Mumbai is the assumption that leopards must remain in protected areas while humans must live outside it. It is time for a more holistic perspective.

The lessons for Mumbaikars are many: better management of garbage so that it does not attract stray dogs or rodents, potential prey for leopards; reduce urban disturbance in the environs of the national park, notably in Aarey Colony where many leopards attack; create awareness among locals about daily safety precautions; and create cooperation between the Mumbai Corporation and the Forest Department. In short, wildlife policy must include an urban policy and vice versa.

For the last few years, however, new park directors have tried to build some fragile bridges over the physical —and ideological—walls separating the park from the city. Civil society groups have been helping the local population coexist with wildlife, creating awareness about the carnivore’s behaviour.

And if leopards have to be accepted in the city outskirts, humans have to be accepted in the park—both under conditions.

A key to this is to involve all stakeholders—police, media, local residents—and harness the traditional knowledge of tribal communities in the management of SGNP.

The author, director of the French Institute of Pondicherry, mountain bikes in France and surfs in Puducherry.

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 12:41:10 PM |

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