How humans and leopards live alongside each other in Mumbai
Over the past several months, the media has been abuzz with reports and CCTV grabs of leopards appearing in Mumbai; peeping over apartment walls, picking up sleeping dogs in building lobbies, crossing wide highways, and the recent BBC Planet Earth series' crisp thermal camera footage throwing light on their elusive life in close proximity to humans. It seems like the bustling city of Mumbai; especially the forests of Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) and the surrounding regions are teeming with big cats! Although the presence of these big cats may intimidate the people living and working in those areas; new research suggests that there isn't much of a reason to.
Although the presence of these big cats may intimidate the people living and working in those areas; new research suggests that there isn't much of a reason to.
A misconstrued notion
Previously, the sighting of a leopard around SGNP would send shivers down the spines of residents and result in frantic phone calls to the authorities to 'do something' which would lead to iron trap-cages being laid out and the feline being trapped and translocated to a forest patch with a much lower density of people, assuming that the leopard would settle down peacefully in the new area. However, ironic as it may seem; the attacks on humans by felines in these regions not only continued but in some instances also increased in the location where the animal was released!
Intrigued; using motion-sensor camera traps, sign surveys, radio telemetry collars and information from other scientific studies across the world, a team of wildlife biologists noted that these 'translocated' animals often tend to make their way back to their home range after release while the ones released farther away would travel long distances passing through several regions that had a high density of humans such as agricultural, industrial and residential areas and attempt to return to their original territories.
File Photo: Deploying camera traps
A path actively used by a leopard
This puts the already stressed animals due to the process of capture and relocation in an absolutely unknown territory leading to an increase in confrontations with humans and attacks on livestock. In fact, a study by Athreya et al in 2010 showed an increase in attacks on humans by 325% and on livestock by 56% during the three years of the translocation programme in the Junnar district of Maharashtra!
A popular Marathi movie titled 'Ajoba' is based on the true story of a translocated leopard who was fitted with a radio collar before his release, and is known to have traversed a distance of 120 kilometers from his release site to the suburbs of Mumbai- crossing a national highway, a railway line and also swimming across a creek in the process! "These animals do not stay where we want them to stay and use the landscape the way they want to. Therefore it is important to accept this and then aim to reduce problems people will have due to these animals rather than randomly translocating these animals and creating more problems", says Dr Vidya Athreya.
A leopard trapped in an urban area
Another interesting point to note is that when a leopard is removed from an ecosystem, there are other leopards that shall occupy that niche for it cannot remain 'empty' as long as there are adequate resources in the form of food, water, safety etc. This is known as the 'carrying capacity of an ecosystem' similar to how an empty seat on the Mumbai railway would not remain empty for long! The new occupants of the territory are not familiar with the behaviour of humans in that area and hence the possibility of unwanted negative interactions between the new leopard and resident people could arise.
Mumbaikars for SGNP
Using the help of data from these scientific studies, several initiatives were taken in Mumbai; one such flagship programme being the creation of the 'Mumbaikars for SGNP' group which took part in sensitization and familiarization drives in order to further the need for the co-existence of humans and leopards. Undertaken by the forest department and the Centre for Wildlife Studies in 2011, along with the efforts of several stakeholders involved in the scenario, the indiscriminate and haphazard translocations of leopards ceased and subsequently, from October 2013 to January 2017 there were no reports of any attacks on humans.
A leopard looks back in the dying light of the sun one summer evening
The way forward
It was observed that rather than targeting leopards and viewing them as the 'problematic nuisance', reforming human practices such as open garbage dump-yards with their proliferating dog and pig population (a never-ending buffet for the big cats!) while open defecation and the dark unlit alleys contribute to humans and leopards bumping into each other, especially in the wee hours of the day. Hence, systematic waste disposal systems, improved sanitation and streetlight facilities, and the change in the perceptions of these magnificent big cats have led to a happier coexistence for all parties involved.
Given a chance, leopards do not wish to come into any contact with humans and will try their best to avoid them, evident by the fact that several residents who swear that there are no leopards around them are in fact frequently captured on camera traps placed by Mr Nikit Surve, who says "It was fascinating to analyze the camera trap images and understand how the leopards were avoiding humans while using a human-dominated landscape". Throughout history, big cats have been deified and revered such as Waghoba temples found across Maharashtra and the need for co-existence rather than a demarcation of areas between humans and animals has always been stressed upon.
Watch this hilarious Marathi play on the human- leopard issue. You can read more about Mumbaikars for SGNP here and Project Waghoba here. A short Marathi video on leopards in sugarcane fields can be found here. A short clip on living with leopards in Mumbai also provides a better insight into the Mumbai scenario.
Text and photographs by Arjun Kamdar
Note: This article first appeared on the Mumbai Live website which can be accessed here: https://goo.gl/fopyU8