In a bid to reduce human-animal conflict in the area and provide animals with a comfortable space, Sanjay Gandhi National Park will host Maharashtra's first leopard safari, which will be ready by the middle of next year
If everything goes according to plan, you may soon be seated in a closed jeep and able to spot 24 leopards that have been kept in captivity at Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) since 2000, roaming free, in a 20-hectare safari environment, as early as next year.
The leopard safari project, which will be the first of its kind in Maharashtra, will cost Rs 1 crore, say forest department insiders. Pune-based wildlife expert Dr Erach Bharucha has been appointed to prepare the plan of the leopard safari, which is its final stage of preparation.
Confirming this, Chief Conservator of Forest and Director, SGNP, Sunil Limaye said, "The plans, prepared by Dr Erach Bharucha, are in the final stage. Once we get the final arrangement, it will be forwarded to the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) for a final approval. That's when implementation can start."
Most of the leopards in captivity are either injured or man-eaters who were rescued and brought from various parts of Maharashtra including Nashik, Jawahar, Ahmednagar and Pune.
30-feet high fences
Plans at the safari include the construction of a 30-feet fencing on all sides, the plantation of large trees, and creation of artificial ponds. The safari will operate on the lines of the existing Tiger and Lion safari at SGNP, wherein tourists are taken in a minibus to see view the animals. The safari precincts will also be under a 24/7 CCTV and forest guard surveillance.
"What's exciting is that it will be the first of its kind in Maharashtra, and only second in the country after the Leopard Safari and Rehabilitation Centre at Coochbehar in West Bengal. For tourists, it will be an experience of a lifetime," said an excited Limaye.
An SGNP officer who visited the Cooch Behar safari claimed that this safari will be a step better since it is newer and will be equipped with modern technology and aesthetic plans. "We are expecting a large turnout of tourists since Mumbai is a popular tourist hub," he added.
The project, which has been in the pipeline since 2005, gathered pace after Human Leopard Conflict Management guidelines were released earlier this year by the Ministry Of Environment and Forest (MoEF).
According to these guidelines, which were released in the month of May, leopards that are raised in captivity or injured, should be housed in cages where they have enough space to roam freely and should also be able to climb trees, since it's a natural experience of their habitat. Easy availability of water was also included.
Soon after the guidelines were released, many animal activists and organisations working for the welfare of animals had appealed that the leopards that were being raised in captivity should be released, as caging them was against the law. In the month of May, a city NGO had written a letter to the MoEF, Central Zoo Authority (CZA), Animal Welfare Board of India, Deputy Inspector General of Forest and state forest department, informing them about leopards rescued from human habitats being raised in captivity at SGNP. Animal activists had alleged that two leopards were forced to stay in one cage due to a space crunch, which was in direct violation of the guidelines.
Taking a serious note of these concerns, SGNP decided to speed up the implementation of the proposed leopard safari.
Officials also believe that this ambitious plan will allow the animal to roam free while providing a solution to the human-leopard conflict, as well as bring fame to Mumbai.
Only 2 to 4 leopards at a time
Wildlife expert Dr Aniruddha Belsare, who has also prepared the Human Leopard Conflict Management Guidelines along with biologist Vidya Athreya, says, "Leopards don't like moving in groups. Forest officials will not be able to let all leopards roam free at the same time since it may result in fights between the animals. At a time, they will be able to release only two to four leopards."
Waste of money
Another expert said, on condition of anonymity, "Rather than wasting money creating a safari, SGNP officials should try and increase the size of the captivity cages so that leopards can move comfortably and get enough exercise. Even after a safari is introduced, the department will not be able let a male and female live together since most breeding centres are full."
Points in the Human Leopard Conflict Management Guidelines, 2011:
> More than one leopard should not be kept in a trap cage/transport cage/housing cage as infighting can lead to death and serious injuries.
> It is common to see many leopards in a single enclosure in India, possibly due to constraints of resources and space. Infighting does not always occur, however they are solitary animals and the stress that they undergo in such situations may not be perceptible to humans.
Did you know?
According to a leopard census conducted in May, 24 leopards also roam free in SGNP, in addition to the 24 that are in captivity, after they were rounded up from various parts of the state. This indicates that the weather and environment at SGNP is conducive to leopard rearing.
> Visitors should avoid making noise when they spot leopards as they are shy animals.
> Photography will not be allowed as it disturbs wildlife.
> As the safari will be located deep in the green cover, it's your chance to spot rare birds and flora too.