On the leopard's trail

For most people in Mumbai, ‘wildlife’ probably means a chance encounter with a swooping kite or spotting a monkey on the sidewalk. But barely 20 kilometres from the noisy lanes of Bandra where wild party animals rule the night, in the suburbs of Borivli, Goregaon and Powai, ‘wild’ has acquired a different meaning. The spotted leopards, Sanjay Gandhi National Park’s most charismatic residents, are fighting back against human encroachment in their territory — increasing man-animal conflict in the area like never before.

File pic

It’s easy preaching from a distance and passing judgments on both man and animal. So we decide to walk the talk, literally.

We reach the Aarey toll naka just as the sun sets on a windy Monday evening. Spread across 1,400 acres, the Aarey Milk Colony forms the southern tip of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. In the past six to seven years, it has become the epicentre of leopard attacks in the 27-odd padas (villages), where 2,500 to 3,000 villagers of the Adivasi Warli community share space with an increasing number of slum dwellers who have encroached on forest land illegally.

Khambhacha Pada
A trap laid by forest department officials in Khambhacha Pada. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar

We pass the toll naka and almost by magic, the noise of highway traffic is replaced by an eerie silence, interrupted only by the chirping of birds. Our mission: to visit the spots where leopard attacks were most common, to see how close they were to human settlements and understand how a solution to the conflict could be found. And if luck permits, to spot a leopard. The good news is that we have the company of a local resident and a colleague, both familiar with the forest territory. Yes, we also have a powerful torch.

Lakhma Bage, resident of Khambhacha Pada
Lakhma Bage, resident of Khambhacha Pada whose forefathers have lived in the same house for over 100 years,   says the human-leopard conflicts have surfaced in the past seven years

Power to the people?
Our first stop is Khambhacha Pada, a settlement barely a few kilometres from the glittering lights of the Film City, but where regular electric supply is still a dream. It is here that a leopard fatally attacked a woman who had come to fill water around 7 pm on January 6. As we park our bikes, a mother and daughter duo stand at the same spot, filling their aluminum vessels. “Ab paani bharne toh nikalna padega na,” (we have to come here to fill water after all) says the mother, adding that if the water crisis is resolved, villagers would not need to step out late in the evenings. “The leopard attacks only when the victim is hunched or sitting. Now, we come to fill water in groups. So we can look out for the leopard. But you can never tell,” she says, the fear evident in her voice.

Sticks, tree branches and stones are some of the objects that locals of the Aarey Colony keep handy to shoo a leopard away.

Across the water pump, an empty leopard trap greets us. Vinod Thankar, a local resident who also works for the BMC, tells us that a dog or a hen that the forest authorities place inside the cage to attract the leopard are long dead. “They just leave it here and go away,” says the 37-year-old BMC worker.

I notice a few solar-powered lamps that don’t work.

Bindu a leopard
Bindu, a leopard, was trapped on January 13, this year. 

“They were installed last May and hardly worked for a week. After 8 pm, no one ventures out of homes even to go to the toilet. When we return from work, we walk as fast as we can and usually come back in groups,” Thankar says.

Vinod Hade, a 17-year-old local from Maroshi Pada
Vinod Hade (centred), a 17-year-old local from Maroshi Pada was attacked by a leopard on November 1, 2012. Scarred by the incident, now he hardly leaves his home without company

Heritage at stake
We walk up a cemented road to arrive at a settlement where white warli figures don the huts. For a second, I am transported into a rural setting, far away from Mumbai. It is hard to imagine life as it was a 100 years ago, less than 3 kms from an urban jungle.

What is life like for those who share a boundary wall or, worse, a common watering hole with leopards? Phorum Dalal & Pradeep Dhivar walked deep into an unfenced, open forest path from the Aarey Milk Colony to find out of there is a way to save the leopards and also reduce man-animal conflict

Forty-seven-year-old Lakhma Bage, whose forefathers lived in the same thatch-roofed house for over 100 years, greets us warmly. “My grandfather studied till the fifth standard at the British School across the hill. They too lived among leopards but there wasn’t any leopard menace back then. Leopard attacks have increased in the past seven years after illegal encroaching began and the forest cover shrank,” he explains.

Illegal slums have given rise to a lot of garbage too, which sees the presence of dogs and pigs, which are in turn, easy prey for the wild cats. While the fear of the leopard does not leave their minds even for a minute, have they ever thought of moving out, I ask Bage. “Where will we go?” he snaps back, “This is our land.”

Two huts away from Bage’s house, a couple lost their only son to a leopard attack while he was cycling around the house. “The family realised something was up only when the dogs started barking. It was so dark, that it was impossible to save the child,” says Bage. In the settlement here, it is common practice to keep stones and iron rods handy, to scare away a straying leopard. I notice that there are hardly any toilets for the villagers apart from three at the far end of the village.

No power, no water, and no toilets: these villagers are fighting with impending doom every day.

Fear unites rich and poor
Next stop is Maroshi Pada, where another local resident, 23-year-old Nitin Samwat, guides us through the narrow alleys. He stops at a makeshift toilet made of tarpaulin where a woman was killed by a leopard. Doors to most of the houses are aja — families sit huddled together, without much conversation. Some are warming their hands around a fire in an open verandah. “We keep dogs around us, as they bark incessantly when a leopard is near,” says Samwat.

He leads us to a house where 17-year-old Vinod Hade lives with his family. On November 1, 2012, a leopard attacked him in the wee hours of the morning, when he was getting ready for school. It was his father who came to his rescue, but the incident has left Hade shaken. “He hardly leaves the hut now and doesn’t go out after dark,” his mother tells us, adding that the politicians promise change just before the elections but nothing has been done in the past few years. Without speaking a word, Hade points to the scars on his head, neck and chest. “Abhi bhi dar lagta hai,” (The fear is still there) is all he says.

Before we leave, we meet up with a few residents of the high-end luxury apartments inside the Royal Palms. While the society has high compound walls since it borders the forest, it hasn’t stopped a few leopards from scaling the wall and coming in as far as the balconies of residents!

“There is a deserted road behind our complex that leads to the SGNP. I go jogging there in the evening around 8.30 pm. People have warned me not to go there, fearing a leopard attack. It is sad that so much development has come up here. The leopards are venturing into residential spaces since this was once forest land, their home,” says 32-year-old Aarya Dharamchand Kumar, a resident of Palm Island inside Royal Palms.

A local offers to help us spot a leopard and we accept the invitation in a blink. We set out on two bikes, dodging potholes, aiming our torchlights into the green and straining our eyes to spot at least one wild cat. Two hours later, we have not even heard a roar, but I end up feeling like an amateur Jim Corbett.

A way out?
Clearly, a long-term solution has to be found. Laying traps to catch leopards is not a solution, nor is asking people not to venture out after dark a realistic option. So what now?

“Educational awareness is one of the long-term strategies that should be adopted. Aarey Colony has no rescue team to help villagers set up a forest ambiance for trapped leopards that cannot be released again in the wild. It is the need of the hour. Just trapping a leopard makes no sense. Another solution is to increase the space for the animals, but with so much encroachment, this seems impossible,” says wildlife expert Krishna Tiwari.

Others such as biologist and member of the Wildlife Conservation Society of India Vidya Athreya, believes, there is no perfect solution to the human-leopard conflict. “A long-term solution will only come when Aarey Colony authorities, officials of the Forest Department and local politicians come to the table together to discuss and find a way to address the problem. That hasn’t happened yet,” she says.

And while fencing large parts of the forest, so that man and leopard have their spaces earmarked clearly, is apparently not an option, some local politicians feel even shorter term measures such as regular cleaning of garbage from the area, would help immensely. Dogs and pigs, that come to the settlements, attracted by the garbage, are easy preys for the leopards. Of course providing regular and high-quality electric supply, building good toilets and ensuring regular water supply to these areas, would reduce chances of conflict. As for the luxury apartments that are eating into forest land — it will take more than just NGO-led protests and piece-meal government action to stop the land sharks on
their tracks.

Both the leopards of Sanjay Gandhi National Park and the Warli gaothans are part of Mumbai’s proud heritage. Perhaps it would need all those who matter — ministers, business leaders, celebrities, conservationists band people who want to protect our heritage, to come together to find a permanent solution and a conflict that is becoming an increasing source of concern for the Maximum City. 

3 Questions
Krishna Tiwari
Nature conservation Founder of NGO Forest and Wildlife Conservation Centre

Why are so many attacks occurring in Aarey Colony recently?
The Aarey Colony is the southern tip of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. I have been visiting the area since 30 years.

In the beginning, the flora and fauna of the area was as good as Sanjay Gandhi National Park and human population was less. The altered infrastructure, which includes road and illegal housing, is one of the reasons the attacks have increased.

Earlier, there was ample food for the leopards, but with the green cover disappearing due to sinking forestland, their visibility has increased and they are hunting domestic animals. Garbage is the prime reason for leopards coming to human settlements, as the spots are dotted with pigs, dogs and cats

Explain the attack pattern of the leopards.
It is important to study the scientific aspects of the park. What is the carrying capacity of the park and how many leopards can it support? The human-leopard conflict is inevitable in Mumbai. Leopards have been regular visitors in human settlements. However, the attack pattern is worrisome, as leopards are secretive animals and do not like to be spotted by humans.

What should be done to curb the situation?
Educational awareness is one of the long-term strategies that should be adopted. A rescue team to help villagers is the need of the hour.

Did you know?
Every Diwali, the Warli community performs a puja for the leopard. (They have a temple dedicated to the wagh devi). They believe prayers can ward off leopard attacks.  

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