Leopards have expertly adapted to living in Mumbai, and people are slowly following suit.
“I did not expect it to be such a shy animal,” reflects Rohan Shah. “Over the last year, I have encountered the leopard many times in this forest but surprisingly, each time it seemed more frightened of me, than I was, of it.”
A local train to the Borivali local train station on a typically hot and humid day, followed by an auto rickshaw through loud, narrow lanes of MG Road and a walk across the road under the National Highway 8 flyover delivers you right to Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in the northern suburbs of Mumbai. Within minutes, the hostile scutter of the city mutes into the silent repose of a forest–one that houses the largest density of leopards in the world.
Sanjay Gandhi National Park. © Nikit Surve/WCS India
Rohan has volunteered with the WCS team working in SGNP for several months and is not alone in arriving at this conclusion. He is only one of the hundreds of citizens of Mumbai who have participated in taking conservation action for the leopards of SGNP and gathered similar conclusions about this much-maligned feline.
A city’s forest
Located in the heart (and known as the lungs) of the city, SGNP is a 104 sq. km. park surrounded on three sides by India’s most populous city. Forming 20 percent of Mumbai’s total geographical area, this is a hilly forest. Its proximity to the coast and largely hilly terrain means that the floral fabric of the park is quite varied – ranging from dry to moist deciduous forests.
SGNP is one of the most visited parks in the world and is especially well known for its top carnivore: the leopard. Several smaller mammals like the rusty-spotted cat, jungle cat, Asian palm civet and small Indian civet are also found here. Wild herbivore species found in the area are the sambar, chital, common langur, wild pig, bonnet macaque and rhesus macaque.
The park is a culturally rich; the Kanheri caves are carved in the basalt outcrops of the forest, dating from the 1st century to 10th century BC. The indigenous Warli community has been residing in this region long before it began transforming into Mumbai as we know it today.
SGNP as seen from the Kanheri Caves. © Vaishali Rawat
Given the nature of this habitat – located next to the densely populated slum settlements and residential colonies of Mumbai, leopards are often sighted outside the forest. They are a very adaptable and wide-ranging species that survive in diverse habitats – forests, mountains, grasslands, and extensively in human-modified landscapes too like agricultural lands, plantations, and villages. In Mumbai, easy availability of prey like stray dogs has ensured that leopards have adapted to surviving outside the park as well.
In the past, sightings of leopards near human settlements have resulted in fear and unrest among the people, resulting in conflict situations that often escalate. Mr. Sunil Limaye, the former Field Director of SGNP recalls dealing with the situation when he was posted to the park: “When I joined as Field Director of SGNP, cases of conflict with the leopard were on the rise. People complained that prey had run out in the park, resulting in leopards increasingly dispersing outside. There was a lot of animosity for the animal; I realized that if any conservation action was to be taken here, it had to involve all affected groups.”
Camera trap photo of leopard in SGNP. © Nikit Surve/WCS India
To educate people about this maligned animal, and about the precautions that can be taken to avoid serious conflict situations, several initiatives have been undertaken by the Maharashtra Forest Department under Mr. Limaye’s charge which has been extended by the two Park Directors after him as well. WCS India Program has been a part of several of them.
A holistic approach
Initial prey-density surveys conducted in the park revealed that there was an abundant availability of wild prey inside the park, but the presence of easy prey outside the park like stray dogs was leading to leopards choosing to hunt outside, at the periphery of the park, close to human settlements. Dr. Vidya Athreya, Associate Conservation Scientist with WCS India says, “Some species are highly adaptable, such as the leopards, and which is why they are able to use urban landscapes as well. In the US for instance, you have coyotes, and in some places, even bears. In Europe, you have foxes and bears that also use urban areas because they are often high in resources in terms of human disposed food and pet food that are placed outdoors.”
It became clear that effectively tackling the issue required a more holistic approach involving several human dimensions, instead of simply trapping and translocating a ‘problem’ animal, as is usually the case. It would require collaboration with other civil service departments, instead of the responsibility solely resting on the forest department.
For starters, the presence of garbage dumpsters supports stray dog populations, forming ideal locations for leopards to hunt outside the park. Thus, the Forest Department along with interested citizens spearheaded awareness drives in slums and residential areas informing people about the need for maintaining clean environments. They also got in touch with the municipality to try and get the garbage cleared in areas where conflict situations were prone to escalating.
Several volunteers from across the city participated in the ‘Mumbaikars for SGNP’ project that was initiated by Mr. Sunil Limaye in 2011. They conducted awareness drives in neighbouring residential colonies, schools, and citizens were informed about sharing spaces with leopards rather than being afraid of the animal, and appropriately reacting to leopard sightings.
Awareness workshop for residents of the residential colony near SGNP. © Mumbaikars for SGNP
Mr. Limaye says, “We were open and transparent about what we were doing. Once we were able to gain the people’s trust about our work, and how it was relevant to their welfare, we started gaining support from various departments and offers from many volunteers.”
Media reports of human-wildlife interactions frequently focussed on painting the leopard as a ferocious man-eater on the prowl, when they are in fact shy animals that tend to avoid human interaction. Thus, several workshops were initiated by the project which aimed only at sensitizing journalists and reporters. “We would take them inside the park and explain the nature of the forest, how the leopard survives in it, and that it is not inherently a bloodthirsty animal. It helped us shift the media narrative around city leopards to one of tolerance and understanding rather than fear and animosity,” added Mr. Limaye.
An awareness program for journalists being conducted by Nikit Surve inside SGNP. © Ranjeet Jadhav
Forest department staff along with the Mumbaikars for SGNP liasoned with the local police stations to make them aware of the importance of promptly responding to a conflict situation. Here, the message was the crucial role of the police in handling crowds when a leopard is sighted.
A training workshop for police officers on handling conflict. © Mumbaikars for SGNP
Additionally, the Maharashtra Forest Department takes help from volunteers to place automated camera traps to track the neighbouring Aarey Milk Colony’s leopards, and network with the local people, to inform or learn about leopard movement. Through casual communication, they help pre-emptively tackle human-wildlife conflicts; for instance, through a medium as simple as a WhatsApp group, a quick and direct line of communication between the foot soldiers and the forest officials is formed ensuring an immediate response.
Meanwhile, as a part of the WCS India citizen science program, interested volunteers are engaged in helping to collect ecological data on the leopards of SGNP.
“Leopards are extremely adaptive animals,” announces Nikit Surve, a research consultant with WCS India who has worked on the leopards of SGNP since 2015. It is the beginning of a training session, and as eager volunteers scramble around a laptop at the SGNP field station, he briefs them on the project: the correct way of setting up a camera trap, inferring information from a camera trap photograph, interesting behaviour to watch out for, and noting data during a transect walk (survey done in a scientific manner).
Volunteer training session in SGNP. © Nikit Surve/WCS India
In SGNP, several volunteers cite how a simple fascination with the leopard led them to sign up for the project, but how being in the field taught them about wildlife and conservation biology as well as forest management, the role of the forest department in managing the forest, and of course, the nuances of animal behaviour and ecology.
Hrishikesh Wagh, a volunteer recalls spending his vacations with his grandparents in the district of Junnar, which is another human-use landscape where leopards are prevalent. “I grew up on stories of leopards in this landscape: stories of conflict and coexistence, of incidents of sighting the leopard and sometimes facing the loss of cattle due to them. Volunteering in SGNP has given me different perspectives on leopards– about their intelligence and adaptiveness, how their territories overlap… how there is so much more to know about this animal than we currently do.”
Volunteer being taught to set up camera traps. © Vaishali Rawat/WCS India
Keren Pereira, a Bachelor of Science graduate participating in the project mentions, “Being here also made me aware of how a forest is managed: the importance of conservation and awareness regarding the human-leopard conflict, the role that the forest department and especially hardworking forest guards play.”
Together, the department and citizens are helping change people's perspective of a vilified animal. While Mumbai’s wild leopards have expertly adapted to survive in the bustling metropolis, its people are slowly learning to share spaces with this wild feline.
Written by Vaishali Rawat