Mumbai: Behind the scenes of the dramatic 72-hour operation to trap a leopard

Jun 15, 2018, 07:31 IST | Ranjeet Jadhav

Days after a chawl resident in Marol spotted a leopard snoozing on his bed, the forest department and volunteers managed to rescue the big cat in the dead of night

Mumbai: Behind the scenes of the dramatic 72-hour operation to trap a leopard
By 3.45 am, the leopard had feasted on chicken in the cage, and the team had quietly moved him to the rescue van

Few creatures are sneakier than a leopard, but you can count the Thane forest officials among them. Days after a chawl resident in Marol spotted a leopard snoozing on his bed, the forest department and volunteers managed to rescue the big cat in the dead of night, without the locals even figuring out what was happening. The operation was so smooth and swift, they didn't even have to use a tranquilliser.

The rescuers realised the leopard went to the abandoned factory just before daybreak every day
The rescuers realised the leopard went to the abandoned factory just before daybreak every day

The leopard was rescued in the wee hours of Thursday from an abandoned factory in Marol, where it had been hanging out for the last few days. The factory shares a boundary wall with the Halimabai Chawl, where the animal was first spotted by a resident on Saturday. "It was around 3.30 am and I was going up to my first-floor room. When I climbed up the steps, I was shocked to see a leopard on my bed. The leopard got startled and fled through a small opening between my house and the adjacent public toilet," said the resident, who did not wish to be named.

The forest department, wildlife activists and volunteers worked together to safely rescue the leopard
The forest department, wildlife activists and volunteers worked together to safely rescue the leopard

Densely populated
The Thane Forest Department (Territorial) sent a team there within the hour, along with Aarey volunteers monitoring leopard activity in Aarey Milk Colony. Immediately, they knew that the biggest challenge before them was to rescue the leopard before any man-animal conflict could take place in the densely populated locality. The rescuers launched a massive secret operation to capture the big cat, ensuring that the locals never got wind of what was happening.

On Saturday, a resident of the Halimabai Chawl climbs up to his first-storey room, only to spot a leopard snoozing on his bed. Illustration/Ravi Jadhav
On Saturday, a resident of the Halimabai Chawl climbs up to his first-storey room, only to spot a leopard snoozing on his bed. Illustration/Ravi Jadhav

Mayur Kamath, honorary wildlife warden of Mumbai, discussed the matter with Deputy Conservator of Forest Dr Jitendra Ramgaonkar and Range Forest Officer Santosh Kank, and they agreed to bring in biologist Nikit Surve and his team to track the leopard' s movement via camera traps. After placing cameras around the chawl on Saturday, the team inspected the adjoining factory compound on Sunday. They found pugmarks as well as claw marks on the walls.

The leopard flees, and the man calls the forest department. Officials immediately realise the danger posed by the big cat in such a crowded locality
The leopard flees, and the man calls the forest department. Officials immediately realise the danger posed by the big cat in such a crowded locality

Caught on camera
More cameras were installed there. The images confirmed that this three to four-year-old male leopard was the same one that had been sighted in Aarey Colony two months ago. Within two days, the team recognised a pattern — every day, the leopard would enter the factory around 4.30, spend the hot days chilling in the shade, before finally coming out at 7.30-8 pm.

Forest officers search for the leopard at the chawl, as well as the adjoining abandoned factory. They instruct the locals to be careful and keep the leopard sighting to themselves
Forest officers search for the leopard at the chawl, as well as the adjoining abandoned factory. They instruct the locals to be careful and keep the leopard sighting to themselves

The multiple cameras also gave the rescuers an insight into the paths the leopard was using. On Tuesday, they installed a trap cage near the abandoned factory. They had also installed one near the chawl earlier, but no activity was reported there. Their efforts at the factory paid off though, when the leopard walked into the second cage around 3 am on Thursday.

They set up 10 camera traps around the chawl and the factory to monitor the animal's movement. They recognise the leopard from past sightings in the nearby Aarey Colony
They set up 10 camera traps around the chawl and the factory to monitor the animal's movement. They recognise the leopard from past sightings in the nearby Aarey Colony

03
Age of the male leopard in years

10
Number of camera traps set up

The researchers realise that the leopard has a set pattern - he uses the same routes and enters the factory at daybreak every day. They set up a trap cage accordingly
The researchers realise that the leopard has a set pattern - he uses the same routes and enters the factory at daybreak every day. They set up a trap cage accordingly

2
No. of trap cages installed

5
No. of days leopard was monitored

45 mins
Time taken to move the leopard after capture

At 3 am on Thursday, the leopard walks into the cage, lured by a chicken kept inside. The officials and volunteers immediately move the big cat to SGNP in Borivli
At 3 am on Thursday, the leopard walks into the cage, lured by a chicken kept inside. The officials and volunteers immediately move the big cat to SGNP in Borivli

Also Read: Mumbai: Leopard Cub At SGNP Wildly Confuses Officials

Cat's in the bag
Rescuers laid in wait for the leopard around the clock, keeping watch in shifts. Keen to keep the operation under wraps until the leopard was secured, as soon as the big cat walked into the cage, they sprang into action. By 3.45 am, the animal had been shifted into the forest department's rescue vehicle and was taken to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), hours before the locals had even woken up. "It was a very difficult operation and we are happy that the leopard was successfully trapped. The animal is under observation at the SGNP leopard rescue centre," said Jitendra Ramgaonkar, deputy conservator of forest.

Why keep it secret?
This achieved several objectives — first, it would prevent panic among the public. Secondly, if people found out about the animal, they would demand that it be tranquilised. In such a crowded neighbourhood, a tranquilised and confused leopard could have caused a lot of damage if it managed to escape. And, lastly, the officials wanted to keep any disorderly elements out, to prevent anyone getting ideas about clicking a selfie or taking videos of the operation.

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