It was 31 March, and Zankar Wedhe was preparing dinner as her 8-year-old daughter Ashal studied. That's when they heard movements on the thatched roof of their hutment. Within moments, a full-grown leopard crashed through as Zankar and Ashal looked on in horror. Just as alarmed, the leopard bounded out through the open door, but not before grabbing an unfortunate stray puppy.
Just days earlier, another leopard stalking a stray dog in the car park area of a high-rise nearby was chased away by a cane-wielding watchman.
While leopards regularly foray into nearby slums and residential, they and the park's other animals are forced to live alongside 51,000 homesteads...
Such incidents are commonplace, but incongruous, as they occur not in a remote corner of India, but in the heart of Mumbai, a metropolis of 24 million that is the financial capital of the country.
These leopards had strayed out of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), the world's only designated national park ensconced within a major city, the metropolitan region of which straddles 603 sq km.
It isn't easy to administer a protected precinct that has the densest population of leopards in the world and a high density of 20,925 people per sq km surrounding it. Park director and chief conservator of forests (CCF) Anwar Ahmed says that while the average density of the spotted cat in India's protected forests is 15 per 100 sq km, there are 35 of them in Mumbai's 103.8 sq km national park.
While leopards regularly foray into nearby slums and residential towers in search of food, they and the park's other animals such as deer, crocodiles, porcupines, palm civets and monkeys are forced to live alongside 51,000 homesteads that have for long been pending relocation out of the park. Vested political interests had brought them into the park and are also behind their continued stay there.
SGNP, the acknowledged green heartland, or lungs, of overcrowded Mumbai, gets over two million visitors a year, many of whom also visit its 110 Buddhist cave excavations of Kanheri—the largest such complex in a single hill—dating from the 1st century BC to 11th century AD. It also has Shiv and Jain temples that draw hordes of pilgrims on religious festivals.
Poaching occurs occasionally, while bootleggers clandestinely operate illicit distilleries. Those living in the hamlets cut and gather firewood from the trees in the park, not quite mindful that is a haven for 35 species of mammals, 274 of birds, 78 of reptiles and amphibians, 170 of butterflies, and over 1300 of plants.
Though buffer zones are mandated around all state and national parks, new housing sprouts audaciously right along the walls of SGNP, while civic authorities look the other way.
Deft handling is required to manage this complicated matrix of social, political, economic and environmental interests.
Three other major cities have nature preserves in their proximity, though not in their midst. The 117 sq km Nairobi National Park, established in 1946 as Kenya's first national park, lies on the outskirts of the capital city, while the 221 sq km Table Mountain National Park overlooks Cape Town in South Africa, stretching from Signal Hill in the city to Cape Point. Rio de Janeiro's Tijuca tropical rainforest is a manmade reclamation of 32 sq km that grew sugar and coffee before it was declared a national park in 1961.
In Mumbai, a significant number of leopard attacks—84, and many of them fatal—were recorded between 2002 and 2004 (out of a total of 176 attacks between 1991 and 2013). Maintaining animals and people have otherwise coexisted largely peacefully, additional principal CCF (Wildlife West), M.K. Rao, explains this was a result of leopards rescued from other parts of Maharashtra and released into the SGNP. Fiercely territorial like all big cats, these leopards could not cope with the forced relocation and as their numbers grew in unfamiliar environs, competition ensued for territory and food.
After relocations were stopped in 2006, conflicts have been largely absent, points out Deputy Conservator of Forests (Thane Forest Division) Kishor Thakare. Now, with time and movement restrictions for visitors being enforced within SGNP, it is more possible to spot leopards outside its walls than within. While officials deny any man-animal conflict within the park, leopards often scale the walls to stray into bustling neighbourhoods to prowl for stray dogs and pigs. An independent study of leopard scat revealed that domestic prey constituted over 40% of the diet of the park's leopards.
Builders advertise their projects as being close to nature and offering breathtaking views. Some even make leopard sightings a selling point!
Though buffer zones are mandated around all state and national parks, new housing sprouts audaciously right along the walls of SGNP, while civic authorities look the other way. Builders advertise their projects as being close to nature and offering breathtaking views. Some even make leopard sightings a selling point!
As society encroaches upon shrinking habitats across India, human-animal conflict becomes at times inevitable and there have been instances of straying leopards being strung up on trees, or battered and burnt. They are also snared in cruel spiked traps to prevent their intrusion into fields or villages.
Such barbarity has not surfaced in or around SNGP, though, and park authorities are keen to keep it that way. Park veterinary officer, Dr Shailesh Pethe, says this is due to a unique project called Mumbaikars for SGNP (MFSGNP) geared towards resolving human-leopard conflict. Project volunteers have been interacting with and holding workshops with residents in the area, the media, NGOs, and the police and municipal departments.
"We inform them that these cats want to avoid us and will not attack unless in self-defence if cornered or surrounded," says MFSGNP volunteer Sunetro Ghoshal. "We also stress that inefficient waste management supports large stray dog populations, which have emerged as the preferred prey for the leopards."
A leopard gazes at city lights; Image: Nikit Surve/SGNP