A film set of Bharatpur railway junction stands in the middle of a cluster of huts, where people are moving around unhurriedly and children squatting to finish morning business. A child sitting on the side of a kachha road to answer nature's call is too common a site to give it any second thoughts in Mumbai, as in most parts of this country.
However, at Khambyacha Pada in Aarey Colony in Mumbai it could spell serious trouble. Just few meters away a female leopard was trapped by the forest officials and locals earlier this month. It is one of the many padas or clusters that witnessed leopard attacks and frequent sighting of the big cat in the past few months. A child, Saurabh Yadav from adjoining Adarsh Nagar was killed when he was playing outside his house. The attack occurred just a day after a female leopard was trapped in Khambyacha Pada. Another leopard cub was trapped four days after the killing.
A leopard cage at Aarey Colony
Residents of these clusters surrounding the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, the only green lung of the city, are now oscillating between conspiracy theories of officials “purposely unleashing leopards” to adopting preventive measures for peaceful co-existence.
“I was saved just last week. I spotted a leopard in the middle of the road staring at me. We come home late from work and have no choice but to take this route,” said Laxmi Dhumale, adding that they never had trouble with the animals in the past. The region has witnessed at least seven deaths and other attacks and straying incidents in the past six months.
In an attempt to minimise man-animal conflict, the officials have removed nearly 3000 illegal structures and are planning to remove another 1500 from the national park that spreads over 100 km.
Although it may well be justified, activists worry that it may lead to negativity among the residents, which in turn may translate into a serious threat for the cat. The tribal population (their houses can still be identified because of Karvy fencing) is now mixed with the migrant population that works in nearby tabelas or in the city as manual labour. Officials say in the past five years the population has gone from a few hundred to at least 10,000 in the nearby clusters.
“Since they are illegal, no one seems to be taking responsibility for garbage disposal, which is leading to increase in the population of dogs and pigs. Anything below 3 ft of height, be it an animal, a child or a human answering nature's call seems like a prey for the leopard and hence most of the attacks are on children and people going inside the forests to answer nature's call. This and much more needs to change as you can’t change the leopards' lifestyle,” says Jalpesh Mehta, Founder, Empower Foundation, an NGO that works on awareness and conservation of wildlife in Mumbai.
Leopard, a shy but ferocious animal, is said to move along the trails after sunset. It avoids bushes, as the belly of the big cat is very soft and susceptible to injuries. For a leopard catching a dog, pig or hen is much easier then chasing and killing a deer. As per records, there are 20-24 leopards in the 104-km national park and activists estimate another 10-12 in the peripheral areas of Aarey colony and film city which do not come under the park’s jurisdiction. There have been attacks of similar nature on the other sides of the park in similar padas near Bhandup.
Sangeeta Thorat, mother of Sanjana, who was killed by a leopard last year, says not just her children but even she is wary of going out in deserted areas near their residence. Her daughter was dragged by a leopard as she sat on atop a pipeline to answer nature's call. Only her head was recovered. “People still venture during the day but we avoid after it gets dark. My children are extremely afraid of the leopard after what happened to their sister,” she said adding the civic authorities carried out garbage collection for a few days after the attack. She said the villagers put up a halogen light to scare away the leopard but that too does not work now. Villagers say the leopard continues to visit the area.
Activists and officials say apart from garbage and illegal encroachments, what is adding to the problem is concretisation in areas just outside of the national park, which ideally should be left as a buffer zone, because it is narrowing the corridor of movement.
'Beware of leopard' signboard on the leopard crossings.
“One has to identify the movement and keep the corridor free for the leopard. If there are large complexes with high concrete walls then the leopard remains in restricted area. Since ample food is available in the form of livestock and dogs, they procreate. Naturally at some point they will come in conflict with the residents. What we forget is if we keep the corridor free then the leopard will happily stay in the jungle and not bother us at all,” said Mitesh Panchal, a wild life activist. He added that trapping leopards and leaving them in the different habitat may not work because they are extremely loyal to their own territory which they mark by scratching the trees and urinating.
Shankar who works at the Royal Palms and lives in the tabela nearby says he and his friends spot a leopard more often than not. “We change our path if we see him at a distance. We carry torches, radios. He doesn’t bother us but we have to be careful. I think they live nearby only and not in the jungle.”
Keeping the leopard in the jungle is not only good for our safety but also for maintaining the food chain. As the ‘apex animal’ of the food chain, having a healthy population of leopards ensures proportionate growth of animals such as deer, rabbit, right down to the green cover.
“Indian society is different from the western societies which have eliminated carnivores from the vicinity of human settlements. We have chosen to safeguard and co-exist with them. However, it is imperative to take precautions and know how to live with them such as not going alone in the deserted areas after sundown, carrying a torch etc.,” said Praveen Pardesi, principal secretary, forests.
Echoes wildlife expert Vidya Athreya, who researched extensively on man-animal conflict. “Even if there may be issues of illegal encroachments, as long as they are living there, the issues of garbage collection and availability of toilets need to be resolved. This is a much larger issue than just creating awareness and may be the local corporators and politicians need to get involved.”
One is not sure how serious the local politicians may be about this. In the meanwhile, the torn posters of awareness camps conducted in the film city recently, perhaps indicate that locals need to get more serious about their own safety.
Why not put the leopards in other national parks also? I would really think it nice, if the habitat was increased in the present precincts. It perhaps is extremely wonderful, if such a situation could come to pass, where people could see the leopard in habitat, and not be attacked. It would be great for Mumbaikars, too. But it would take consideration by the administration and govt. The Shiva Sena led N. D. A., had broken down habitats, and living quarters, and did make buildings for the same people. It appears that for months, these people had nowhere to stay in the heart of Mumbai, or not exactly, but in the suburbs of Santacruz.
60 years and more from Independence, this is another indicator of the failure of democracy.
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