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Leopard puts 30,000 people under house arrest

Eight days after it was first spotted, leopard still on the loose in Kanjurmarg; increased patrolling after its second sighting hasn't calmed the tense nerves of residents who abandon the streets after dark

Over the last week, an otherwise routine central Mumbai suburb has taken to assuming a hushed, haunted character. At Indira Nagar, Station Road, Kanjurmarg (East), things start to hush up with the onset of twilight. The number of pedestrians thins down. There are no cries from playing children. Residents do not hang around in groups by the street corners, chatting. Vendors and hawkers steer clear of the patch. An occasional vehicle, windows rolled up, recoils hurriedly away from the street. By nightfall, the quiet and isolation is complete.


Must catch: A man points to the pug mark that was found in the
premises of a private company


But the silence is illusory, taut with the fright of 30,000 residents of the colony, dreading the next sighting (or first strike?) of the leopard that they spotted on December 17.

That Saturday morning, Chandrakant Aher, a factory worker, was the first to spot the big cat under a car outside Mansukh residential compound which houses Echjay Forgings Pvt Ltd, adjacent to Crompton Greaves company. A team from the forest department (Thane), along with another from Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) zeroed in on the factory compound to trap the female leopard. But all their efforts to bell the cat were futile in the face of its stealth movement. After almost a week, things could have returned to normal. But last Friday evening, after sunset, someone saw the big cat again, lurking around the compound. The Thane forest department experts and the SGNP team again conducted a search operation, failing again to locate the animal.

Speaking to MiD DAY, Assistant Conservator of Forests (Thane) Suresh Darade said, "One of the residents called after 6 pm on Friday to tell us that she had spotted a leopard. We, along with the SGNP team, conducted a search operation but could not find the animal. As a precautionary measure, we have installed two cages in the area -- both in the compound -- to trap the leopard."

Cloak of fear
Residents have withdrawn to the safety of the four walls of their houses. Afraid to step outside, they do not wander on their own early morning or late night. They have been issued a set of instructions to follow by the forest department, which has practically grounded them, and especially their pets, which are now getting restless. 


Forest officials get a trap to catch the wandering leopard.
Pics/ Sameer Markande


ASI Raghunath Kakad of Kanjurmarg police station said, "Until two days ago, we patrolled the area once a night but after the second sighting, we do it at least four-five times. We have seen changes in the behavior of citizens. They used to wander at night but nobody hangs out after dark anymore."

"While walking the streets, we carry a big hedge for safety. We continuously patrol the area," said the watchman of a residential building, Shankar Doke. 

Said resident, Bhaskar Tiwari, "We are living here for the past 5 to 6 years, and have never encountered such a situation before. Our children usually play and ride bicycles in the evening but we have forbidden them from venturing outside after 5 pm."

Wilson, secretary of the society, said, "We have implemented certain safety measures. For example, we light four halogen bulbs in the area while earlier it used to be pitch dark throughout the night. We keep our car windows shut till we drive up to the house and park. Senior citizens have stopped their morning and evening walks."

Bipendra Mandal and his wife used to walk their dog three times in a day. "Our life has changed in two short days. We used to rove freely, and suddenly, we are sitting at home, confined to its walls. It's boring for us, and our dog, who is used to taking walks at least three times a day. The forensic people told me to keep my dog indoors; the leopard can whiff him out."

Work stutters
Those with their work places in the area have been forced to compromise with their business.
Dilip Dalavi, HR person for Echjay, said, "Until two days ago, our labour worked three shifts a day. We have struck down the night shift now. Though this is affecting production, we have to do that. We have appointed three extra watchmen and kept a big cage on the premises. Police groups patrol the area at night."

Shopkeepers and stall owners are also facing difficulties. Ashok Kanse who owns a juice centre, complained, "Before the first sighting, I made at least Rs 1,000 in a day, but my earnings have been dwindling since. In the last two days, I have only managed to make Rs 300. Nobody comes out because of this leopard." Nisha Nair, bakery owner, said, "My regular Christmas customers gave cake orders by phone, they are scared to come over here. I have been forced to close my shop by 7.30 pm because there are no customers."

Milkman Shankar Sahu said, "The day after the incident, my wife didn't allow me to distribute milk in the area. Yesterday, society members called me and convinced me to go there after 8 in the morning. I said okay because this is, after all, my bread and butter."

Forest officials feel that the animal must have escaped because there have been no telltale marks since Saturday. Sources in the SGNP told this newspaper that the team working under the initiative Mumbaikars For SGNP, plans to set up camera traps to capture stills of the animal's movement.

Who set this cat among humans?
On December 17, a leopard was spotted at Mansukh compound of the Echjay Forgings company. A search operation under SGNP veterinary doctor Vinaya Jangle, who has rescued many leopards that entered human settlements in Mumbai, Thane and Raigad, yielded no result. But the forest department confirmed the presence of the spotted cat after they found its pugmarks at the ground opposite N G Royal Park building. Scratch marks on trees and scat on the terrace of a warehouse near the compound confirmed the animal's presence. Officials and residents are all the more alarmed, as there is no jungle near the area; if the leopard has entered the premises, it must have crossed the railway tracks at Kanjurmarg, they speculate. But is it possible for a leopard to cross railway lines? "Leopard is the only animal that adapts itself to its surroundings. My past experience says that it can stay in close proximity to human beings without getting noticed for a long time, so it isn't surprising that it crossed the railway tracks," Jangale said. "Leopards will never attack humans, so we request the locals to immediately contact us if they spot the animal so we can rescue it. However, if people try to provoke it, it will attack in defence."

Did you know?
Ajoba, the 10-year-old leopard which trekked 90 km from Malshej Ghat in Pune to SGNP in 2009, died in a road accident earlier this month while crossing NH-8 near Chinchoti Phatak in Vasai.

He was fitted with a tracking device and released at Malshej Ghat. Over the next 78 days, a GSM/GPS tracker gave a thrilling pug-by-pug account of wherever he was roaming. It was because of Ajoba that unknown facts about leopards -- like they can cross roads and rail tracks -- came to the fore. Experts said that sometimes the spotted cats get confused due to the powerful lights from vehicles and can meet with accidents.

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