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Monday, November 29, 2021

Leopards attacks in Aarey Milk Colony have reignited debate on human-animal conflict

9 attacks in Aarey Milk Colony in the last two months have left residents fearful and reignited a debate on human-animal conflict.

Written by Sanjana Bhalerao | Mumabai |
Updated: November 1, 2021 2:32:48 am
leopards, leopards attack, Aarey Milk Colony, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, SGNP, MumbaiA view of Aarey Milk Colony (Pradip Das, Express Photo)

Until a few months ago, the communities living inside Aarey Milk Colony in Goregaon East — located close to Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) — had no fear of walking alone on deserted paths amid bushes after sunset. However, things have drastically changed in the last two months.

Settlements that shared spaces with leopards for decades came under a series of attacks from the big cat since August 31. Nine attacks in the last two months in various settlements within Aarey have left residents terrified and put a spotlight on the growing human-animal conflict in the region.

Four-year-old Ayush Yadav was pounced on and almost dragged within the forest. If it hadn’t been for the fearless locals, who ran behind the leopard and used sticks to drive it away, the family would have lost the boy.

leopards, leopards attack, Aarey Milk Colony, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, SGNP, Mumbai A poster to spread awareness about leopards. (Pradip Das, Express Photo)

In Ekta Nagar, one of the settlements deep within Aarey, Rohit Tilak is now anxious and hesitates to step out of his house alone. The 10-year-old was pounced on as he was walking home on a September evening. “Thankfully, he was not severely injured. But he is scared. I am always around when he plays outside. He doesn’t walk alone anymore,” said Rohit’s mother.

The attacks have also sparked a debate between residents living in fear and the forest department on monitoring the entire leopard population in Aarey, which has a dense forest as well as human settlements.


Life after the attacks

Aarey Milk Colony, abutting SGNP, is spread across 3,166 acres. It has an estimated population of 50,000 with 28 tribal hamlets and slum pockets, and 36 cattle farms along with a good patch of forest.

The kuccha roads of these settlements are almost deserted as the sun sets, if one has to step out, it is rarely alone and always armed with flashlights. Upping their protection, residents of Ekta Nagar in Unit 31 have pooled in money to install CCTV cameras to keep a watch on the big cats at night. Others are relying on stray dogs. The strays, which locals have adopted to guard their homes, warn them and sometimes even take on the leopards.

Some residents have invested in emergency lights and high-power flashlights. Nandini Sanjay, a resident of government quarters in unit 4, said, “The public toilet is not even a minute’s walk from my room, but I don’t step out alone. I have spotted leopards on the narrow pathway to the public toilet and also on the roof. I am always on the lookout.”

Mayur Vikram Brahme, a resident of Unit 31 and also a volunteer spreading awareness on living with leopards, said, “After the attacks, the waist-length grass and bushes were cleared, and the garbage in the area — which used to attract pigs and stray dogs who are prey for the leopards — was cleaned. Fifty houses have come together and installed 10 CCTV cameras to monitor the areas for leopards.”

After the increase in attacks, Mumbaikars for SGNP, a joint initiative of the forest department and citizens, that deals with human-leopard interaction in SGNP and Aarey, has been conducting awareness sessions where attacks have been recorded and in settlements with potential threat.

People, especially children, have been instructed to travel in groups of at least six. The idea is to scare leopards by making noise and maintaining safety in numbers. Parents have been instructed to carry small children in their arms. Locals have been asked to keep their areas free of litter and garbage and not relieve themselves in the open.

As night falls, forest department officials use a megaphone to warn people about the danger of a leopard in the vicinity and to travel in groups and avoid dense forest areas.

In the last one month, changes in Aarey Milk Colony are in full swing. Areas that have for long demanded new public toilets are getting them, defunct solar street lights are being repaired, overgrown bushes and grasses on the pathways are being cleared.

While the authorities and volunteers call for calm and inform citizens that it is only one problem leopard behind the attacks, and that the entire leopard population should not be blamed, citizens want all the leopards to be captured and removed from Aarey or monitored all the time.

“Locals have for ages shared space with leopards, but the attacks have pushed them to consider the worst. In our sessions we address and clear misconceptions about the big cat, call for citizens’ support. Involving locals as volunteers has helped us calm a few who threatened us with protests and demanded capture of the leopards. Until the problem leopard is caught, the locals will have to live with heightened precautions in their daily life,” said Shailesh Rao, a volunteer with MFSGNP for a decade.

Many who have seen leopards through their life in Aarey were confused about the rise in attacks. The delay in capture of the animals and increase in attacks have also given rise to misconceptions. In one of the sessions, MFSGNP volunteers were blamed for creating fear of leopards. A group of locals accused the authorities of unnecessarily highlighting the leopards’ presence and claimed they were trying to build fear and push locals out of Aarey.

Shankar Palani, a local and volunteer with MFSGNP, said, “The most common question we get in our sessions is why are leopards attacking us, and is the forest department trying to drive us out? The fear is now taking the shape of anger among residents.”

leopards, leopards attack, Aarey Milk Colony, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, SGNP, Mumbai Mounds of garbage attract animals that leopards prey on. (Pradip Das, Express Photo)

Leopards of Aarey

The leopard population in Aarey Milk Colony is small, and often studied together with leopards in the bordering SGNP, which has one of the highest densities of leopards in urban areas. According to a 2015 survey conducted by SGNP, 35 leopards are living in and around the national park, and Aarey is one of their dominant habitats.

In Aarey, at any given time there are about four to five adult leopards, including a transient population that moves between Aarey and SGNP. Four adult females – Adarsh Nagar, Bindu, Chandani and Luna — are the most photographed leopards in the area.

A group of researchers and wildlife enthusiasts, in collaboration with the forest department, is monitoring leopards in Aarey. The study has the ultimate goal of facilitating a peaceful coexistence between leopards and humans and changing the perception towards big cats.

Waghoba temple in Aarey, which houses an idol of a big cat, highlights the tribal association with leopards. Resembling a tiger, the idol is worshipped by tribal communities living in the area.

Locals pray to Waghdev to protect them as they venture into the forests, to guard their homes and at the time of weddings or celebrations in the family. The community celebrates the leopard during their annual festival of Waghbaras, which goes on through the night, to pray to and appease the spirit of Waghdev.

Prakash Bhoir, a tribal leader who has lived over 50 years in Keltipada, a settlement of 100 Warli homes in Aarey colony, has seen and lived beside leopards all his life. “To us, the leopard is a figure who guards our homes. We consider the leopard or Waghdev as their deity whom they pray to first on all auspicious occasions.”

He added, “We should not blame the leopards. It is us, humans, who are increasingly moving towards its territory. The leopard has not reached our doorstep, but we have reached inside its house. Leopards’ hunting area has been squeezed and pushed closer to our villages, where there is access to food such as dogs, pigs, and poultry.”

Narrating his most recent encounter Bhoir said, “As I decked up my house for my son’s wedding and was winding up for the night, I saw a leopard looking at me through the window. It looked around and disappeared into the forest.”

Past attacks

Leopard attacks on people peaked in Aarey in 2002 – with 25 incidents in six months. Most of these were attributed to leopards who moved from other forest patches or were translocated.

Following the attacks, the then chief conservator of forests Sunil Limaye and his successors Vikas Gupta and Aarey CEO Anwar Ahmed launched programmes involving the general public, called ‘Living with the Leopards’.

The programme, considered a role model for human-leopard coexistence, brought leopard attacks to an almost complete halt for 15 years. Until 2017, when residents were angered after seven attacks, including on five children and the death of a two-year-old, near Maroshipada, a hamlet near Film City.

Forest officials and wildlife experts found that a three-and-a-half-year-old leopard was on an attacking spree. It took 54 days to finally trap the animal, named Regulus, by the group. The leopard was taken to the SGNP rescue centre, where it still lives in captivity.

Forest department officials said the decision to capture a leopard is the last resort. A leopard sighting, the big cat hunting for its prey, doesn’t justify a capture or translocation.

An animal is captured only after it is designated a ‘problem animal’ i.e., a specific animal with a verified documented history of attacking humans, livestock or causing damage to property on public lands.

The problem animals, once captured, spend their lives in captivity and are never released in the wild. As per the 2011 MOEFCC guidelines for human-leopard conflict management, the decision to capture an animal should be the last option, and animals trapped after deliberate attacks on humans should never be released back into the wild.

Forest officials said that after attacks, there is increased pressure from locals to capture and translocate the animals. However, wildlife experts have repeatedly stressed that removal of leopards from an area is not a solution because another leopard will always take over the space.

A study by Vidya Athreya, director, Wildlife Conservation Society-India, who has supervised the Living with Leopards programme in Aarey, and her colleagues in 2000 in Junnar revealed that translocation increased leopard attacks on people in the vicinity of the release sites.

In the three-year translocation period from 2001 to 2003, leopard attacks rose to 17 per year from an average of 4 per year for the eight years before translocation began.

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