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Squatters, leopards: Who’s straying?

Jungle vs concrete jungle. This is the battle Mumbai’s losing; this year alone, 14 residents were prey to leopards forced to forage out...

Written by Vijay Singh | Mumbai |
June 29, 2004

Jungle vs concrete jungle. This is the battle Mumbai’s losing; this year alone, 14 residents were prey to leopards forced to forage outside the forests.

Sandwiched between the eastern and western suburbs is 103 sqkm of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, home to 33 leopards and more than 12,000 families. ‘‘We have encroached so much into the jungle that the leopards are now finding easy prey in human settlements,’’ says Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary magazine.

‘‘It’s obvious that food is not available to the leopards in the forests because of which they are attacking humans,’’ said a state government official. A panicked state government is considering the release of 60 deer and sambhar from the Byculla zoo and wild boars from Nagpur and Beed to keep the cats within their domain. Earlier, the leopards took away stray dogs, now, they’ve turned to men.

At 2.30 am today, 18-year-old Raju Yadav was dragged away by a leopard while sleeping with his father in a hut in Aarey Colony. A neighbour who saw the leopard taking Yadav away raised alarm, forcing the animal to flee. Around the same time in Palaspada in Mulund, Kashi Baba (55), a priest, was killed in sleep. Baba had decided to camp away from the hilltop where the cats were on the prowl but the leopard found him. It dragged him by the neck 500 metres into forest, killed him and tore off his left thigh.

In Borivali’s Raheja Enclave, forest guards tracking the cats tranquilised a leopard. The animal seemed asleep but as soon as Vaibhav Patil, a guard, reached for its neck, took a swipe and fled. It was six hours before the guards captured it again.

Wildlife experts, however, believe leopards stray into settlements only because it means easy kill. Deputy Conservator of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, A.R. Bharati, says: ‘‘The best way to avoid this dangerous trend is to build a boundary wall around the national park to keep the cats inside and the encroachers out.’’ The Bombay High Court ordered evacuation in 2002, Rs 10 crore was sanctioned by the Centre to begin a 22-km wall. The 12,000 hutments, however, remain. Ex-MP Ram Naik, who was defeated by star Govinda in this constituency, has now gone on record to say these hutments should not be removed till the families are resettled nearby.

Assistant Conservator of Forest Ramesh Pakhre blames the slum dwellers for coming back to the forests. The squatters think otherwise: ‘‘We pay them and they let us stay again. Why?’’

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