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Spotted and feared in leopard city

Their habitat reduced,Mumbai’s leopards frequently run into humans and sometimes kill

Written by Aakriti Vasudeva | Mumbai |
August 16, 2012 3:22:55 am

How firmly leopards are entrenched in Mumbai’s living space is clear from the guarantee of regular sightings given by real estate developers around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP). But alongside the lure of a sighting remains the possibility of an attack. Such fears have been rekindled by the recent death of a girl near the boundary of the park,the first officially confirmed casualty of a leopard attack within the city since 2006.

The SGNP is possibly the only national park that lies within the municipal limits of a metropolis,surrounded by suburbs of Mumbai from three sides and Thane from the fourth. It is thus natural,wildlife experts say,for one of the 21 leopards inside the park to stroll into the nearest human settlements,which are eating into their habitat.

“Over the years,encroachment by tribals and real estate growth in areas such as Malad,Goregaon,Bhandup and Mulund have reduced the leopard’s habitat and prey base. Also,the increasing garbage around the park because of these settlements attracts dogs,which leopards feed on,” said Krishna Tiwari,head of the NGO Forest and Wildlife Conservation Centre.

“Earlier,we had buffer areas such as Powai and Aarey Milk Colony,which had a large forest cover. But the cover has now dwindled as even these areas have fallen prey to construction. The southern tip of the park is choked,” Tiwari said.

Attacks on humans peaked in the three years from 2002 to 2004 when 50 people were killed by leopards in Mumbai,20 of them outside the park. There appeared to be a lull from December 2006 till last month,with no such deaths officially reported. There were reports that Sunny Soni,5,who died in Aarey Milk Colony in May,had been attacked by a leopard but this was not officially confirmed. Beyond Mumbai,however,leopards have killed in rural Thane not only during this period but also after the latest confirmed death in Mumbai.

On July 16,Sanjana Thorat,6,of Mulund in Mumbai was mauled to death by a leopard after she had gone near the boundary wall of the park near her home. But experts stress this is not a sign of a man-eater at large.

“Residents of Shankar Tekdi in Mulund,where Sanjana lived,have told me they see a leopard almost everyday but it does not attack them. Also,a leopard never attacks someone who is standing. It probably thought that the child,who was squatting,was an animal,” said Tiwari.

“This was an unfortunate incident as the family went into the forest after dark and without proper precautions. It does not mean that attacks have begun again,” said Sunil Limaye,chief conservator of forests and director of the SGNP.

Other than the attack,there have been frequent recent sightings to arouse fears in Mumbai. A leopard strayed into NES International School in Mulund in April and took 18 hours to capture. Another one was seen on the verandah of a row house in Royal Palms,Goregaon,in July.

Such encounters with leopards are inevitable in Mumbai but experts say their frequency and the risks involved can be kept to a minimum. The forest department conducted “Mumbaikars for SGNP”,a yearlong project beginning July 2011,to mitigate man-animal conflict by studying leopard behaviour with the help of camera traps and creating awareness on coexistence.

There have also been efforts to clear encroachment,the major cause of man-animal conflict. At one time,61,000 slum-dwellers had encroached on 200 hectares of the SGNP before the Bombay High Court in 1997 ordered their removal. Removal of encroachments often runs into legal hassles,as in the case of 33,855 encroachers who were found eligible for rehabilitation under the Slum Rehabilitation Authority but who include many for whom the houses are not ready yet. According to 2011 figures,58,649 encroachments had been removed from the park till the and 133.87 hectares reclaimed as forest area.

The court had also directed the park authrities to create a wall along its 92km boundary to prevent fresh encroachment. “Around 22km has a natural boundary and we have constructed another 26km. Construction of another 14km will begin soon and of another 30km in the next phase,” Limaye said.

In the long term,however,only awareness and an upgrade in equipment can prevent such conflict,say experts. “We need to have more rescue teams and expertise in handling such situations. We must follow the guidelines on human-leopard conflict issued by the Environment Ministry and keep creating awareness,” said Tiwari.

Tiwari,who has started a “City Forest Initiative” with support from the forest department,conducts frequent awareness drives around the park. Since Sanjana’s death,has taken his campaign to areas around Shankar Tekdi,such as Ganesh Pada,Hanuman Pada,Panscheel Nagar in Mulund. “We teach them the dos and dont’s and suggest mitigation measures such as temporary latrines. Many deaths occur when people go in to the forest to answer the call of nature and halogen lights,” he said.

Dos and Don’ts

Keep standing,leopard will never attack unless one crouches

Scare leopard away with noise,not sticks and axes

Make sure a guardian accompanies children to school and back

Never venture alone into the forest.

Flash a torch or the light of your mobile so that the leopard does not mistake you for an animal

Leopard attacks

August 5: Akshay Bhavar,12,killed in forest in Shahapur,Thane

July 30: Akshay Roje injured in Bhiwandi,Thane

July 25: Durga Ghatal killed in Tansa wildlife sanctuary in Thane

July 16: Sanjana Thorat,6,killed outside SGNP in Mulund

Sightings

July: One inside Whistling Woods; it returned to forest. Another on the boundary wall of a row house at Royal Palms in Goregaon; it had crossed to the verandah of a house,then strolled over the boundary wall

June: Two on IIT Bombay campus,driven away days later.

April: One inside NES International School in Mulund,another in Damu Nagar,Kandivali.

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