A life-saving ‘Forest Department Project’ in the middle of Mumbai sounds strange enough, but more remarkable is its cause being wild leopards co-existing with people in a megacity. In Mumbai, the term ‘urban jungle’ takes a uniquely more literal meaning.

A leopard in the SGNP forest of Mumbai
A leopard in the SGNP forest of Mumbai

Not many may be aware this vibrant metropolis with 21 million people has the world’s largest tropical forest within a city. And here, at the heart of India’s financial capital, a 21st century version of primeval territorial arguments fascinatingly continue between carnivorous creatures of the wild and humans.

Across 103 sq kms of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in Borivali and adjacent forests, Mumbai citizens and wild leopards try to go about daily life without conflict — in residential localities equidistant from the elite financial district Nariman Point and suburban Virar.

Dipti Humraskar has lived in the same area as the leopards all her life, around the SGNP Park. For locals, like the lady selling excellent ginger tea at the forest campsite, seeing a leopard at night or early morning is as routine as seeing an ice cream man at Juhu beach.

Dipti and young wildlife conservator Snowy Baptista are volunteers in a four-old Forest Department project ‘Mumbaikars for SGNP’,  to help leopards and Mumbaikars (people of Mumbai) live peacefully together. The initiative aims to prevent fatal leopard-human interaction that once hit a high of 28 dead or injured in leopard attacks in 2003.

“Many residents have moved into this SGNP area over the last decade and do not know how to react to a leopard in their neighborhood other than fear and panic,” Sunetro Ghosal of ‘Mumbaikars for SGNP’ informed Asia Times. “Here, the Forest Department helps residents reduce possible risks of sharing space and resources with leopards”.

A leopard in a Mumbai car park
A leopard strays into a Mumbai car park

Like Mumbai, a few other cities in the world share living resources with carnivores – the dozen pumas or cougars (mountain lions) near San Francisco Bay, foxes in London’s Kensington and Chelsea, or wolves in Norway’s Nordmarka forest north of Oslo. But Mumbai is unique for the large density of wild leopards and humans.

SGNP has an estimated 20,925 people per sq km living with 35 leopards or more, according to researcher Nikit Surve of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun.

Within Mumbai and open to hilly forests of the Western Ghats, the SGNP is unlike the world’s other three national parks within city limits – in Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town and Nairobi. Leopards of Mumbai stroll in and out of the wilds, sometimes wandering into residential neighborhoods.

In such cases, Ghoshal and colleagues educate people not to panic seeing a leopard. Like other shy creatures of the wild, leopards attack humans mostly when provoked.

Locals going out at night, particularly children, are advised to walk with a companion. Or switch on cell phone music, to help leopards avoid humans. Avoid aggressive gestures, says the advisory. And importantly, avoid a mob crowding around a leopard, forcing it to turn violent like any other frightened and cornered animal.

Leopard-human interaction increases with more housing settlements encroaching in the forests of Mumbai. Leopards have entered houses, car parks, a school in Mulund, about 18 kms away from Mumbai airport – bit like finding a wild leopard in Brooklyn, New York.

Leopards stray into residential areas while hunting for prey such as dogs, cats and chicken. Residents are reminded that leopards do not recognize maps demarcating forests and housing colonies. So people need to help leopards avoid people – more so when these leopards have been the original local residents for thousands of years.

The SGNP area dates back to 4 BC when nearby Sopoara and Kalyan were trading ports with ancient Greece and Mesopotamia. Ancestors of Mumbai leopards probably watched traders use the route between these two ports that was partially through this forest.

A leopard captured in camera
Leopards usually attack humans only when provoked

Unlike tigers and lions, leopards have survived in Mumbai due to having a flexible diet, needing less water and being “masters of camouflage”, in largely avoiding people.

Wildlife experts say problems emerge when rangers trap and randomly relocate leopards, or poachers kill them. Fatal consequences can result when cubs are separated from their mother. The mother usually spends about three years teaching survival techniques such as hunting and avoiding humans, says Ghosal. Without this maternal training, young leopards can turn man killers.

So leopards that are left alone in their territories of Mumbai, where they have lived for generations, generally leave humans alone.

“Also, leopards, wolves, lynx, tigers etc are known to return to their home territory over hundreds of kilometers once they are relocated,” says Ghosal. “These are potentially traumatized animals traveling through unfamiliar territory, which may lead to conflict and tragedy in the area where the animals were released.”

Ghosal and his ‘Mumbaikars for SGNP’ colleagues primarily try to remove fear — one of the root causes for aggression and violence among species. No fear, no problem.

These days, Mumbai residents are more often calling up the nine Forest Department helplines not screaming to be rescued as soon as possible, but to excitedly exult having seen a leopard.

Saving the leopard serves the larger aim of conserving the Sanjay Gandhi National Park area, a mega oasis of serenity within a megacity. A crucial water source for Mumbai, the bio-diverse Park houses 470 species of birds, mammals, butterflies, 1,300 plant species including the rare Karvy flower that blossoms once in eight years.

Reports Vidya Athreya, an ecologist studying human leopard conflict since 2003: “Using the leopard as the flagship species, this project provides a platform for local people to come together and be involved in the conservation of this valuable forest,” – a key to survival of Mumbai’s human and leopard citizens.

Photo credits: Mumbaikars for SGNP, Nikit Surve

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.

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