‘People need to learn to share space with leopards’https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/mumbai/people-need-to-learn-to-share-space-with-leopards/

‘People need to learn to share space with leopards’

Vikas Gupta,who took over as the chief conservator of forest for Sanjay Gandhi National Park last week,speaks to Anjali Lukose about his plans.

What have you observed at the national park? What changes would you like to bring?

I have tried to see what SGNP experience is for a tourist. The park and ecotourism relies largely on people’s perception of it,so I want to ensure the basic amenities are good. We have five to six drinking water kiosks,washroom facilities and a souvenir shop. As we do not allow packaged drinking water from outside,I will ensure that we provide quality drinking water to our visitors. I would like to provide maintained toilets. We want to make the souvenir shop more vibrant and hope to add more items soon. As security is a concern,I would like to have physical barriers at the entrance that will help guards to check vehicles thoroughly and more signages at the entrance so people are aware of what is allowed in the park.

What are your long-term plans?

I want to involve more people in conservation efforts and man-animal conflict resolution. I want to look into how we can solve this conflict and development of the park. To tackle encroachment,we need to increase awareness among local politicians who can support us in educating locals about the rules. We are constructing a fenced wall around the park.

What do you think is the solution to the man-animal conflict?

Leopards don’t prefer core forests but live around the edges. They are known to live close to human habitation and have co-existed peacefully. With time,the respectable distance that humans kept with leopards has reduced. We need to learn to live with them and share our space with them as we are living in what is largely their territory. Simply trapping leopards from a certain area is not the solution. It doesn’t help to relocate these animals far from their home territory because they find it difficult to adjust to the new place and may return. We only trap those that are known to have attacked people. The situation may not always change,but we must learn to handle it better. Increasing awareness about leopards and sensitising people is key to resolving this conflict.

What steps will you take to resolve this conflict?

Members of Mumbaikars for SGNP interact with schoolchildren and teach them how to act when they spot a leopard and the general dos and don’ts. I plan to encourage such initiatives. Media also plays a major role in affecting how people perceive these conflicts. Ill-informed reports affect our efforts to resolve the problem. I plan to have a good network with volunteers and the media so that correct information reaches people. I will also encourage workshops to sensitise policemen. Police officers need to learn more about handling wildlife and should be able to control crowds and help us concentrate on rescue missions.

How is managing SGNP going to be different from your earlier missions?

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At SGNP,wildlife and urban population exist in close proximity. Encroachment is a major issue here. Other parks have issues such as felling of trees or poaching,but at SGNP,it is more about ‘land stealing’. We also need to create awareness among people on the need of such a park,importance of wildlife as well as of conserving the park.

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