Living with Leopards in Mumbai’s Aarey

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An eerie calm comes over Aarey Milk Colony as soon as the sun goes down. Leopards have attacked humans several times in the past year, and sightings are frequent.

At the places I visit, on the outskirts of Sanjay Gandhi National Park sandwiched between the eastern and western suburbs of Mumbai, people are on high alert. From dusk till dawn, if they have to go out, they carry torches or sticks or both.

Humans and leopards co-exist in Mumbai – and you can’t take any chances. The park and several green pockets surrounding it, such as Aarey Milk Colony, Film City, IIT-Bombay are leopard territories and cover approximately 140 km2.

It is a miracle city-forest, the lung of Mumbai. During my visit, I meet Imran Iqbal Udat, a longtime resident of Aarey Milk Colony, and Ranjeet Jadhav, a media professional and conservationist. With pandemic restrictions in place, the unrest is muted.

“You can’t let your guard down,” says Mohammed, a teenager living in the area. “A few days ago I saw a female leopard crossing the road with two cubs.”

Mohammed’s father, Shiraj Salim, owns a bison farm. Shiraj takes me to a corner of her farm, where a leopard regularly visits and sits on a haystack. “Once he entered the farm but did not attack the buffaloes,” he says.

“The farm has 16,000 to 17,000 buffaloes at any one time. About 500 owners and more than 1,700 workers come here,” says Shiraj.

The area is shrubby and among the mounds are waterholes – two perennial ponds and one seasonal. Many streams flow through the area. Extensive pastures of Marutian Para grass are tended and harvested to provide fodder for livestock.

This area was the scene of several human-leopard conflicts between 2002 and 2004, but now, thanks to the Maharashtra Forest Department and the park authorities, the casualties have decreased.

“If you look at the number of leopards in Mumbai and the attacks, it clearly reflects coexistence,” a senior forest official said.

Imran and Ranjeet, along with filmmakers Kunal Chaudhar and Satish Lot, Kaushal Dubey, Wasim Athaniya and Hitendra Pachkale, regularly set camera traps and document leopards in Aarey.

The attacks mainly take place in the slums, where the leopards spot dogs, pigs and poultry. “They are easy prey,” says Imran.

The smaller the physical characteristics, the greater the chance of an attack. People crouching in the open to defecate are more vulnerable, as are children playing. “Families take precautions, but sometimes the attack happens,” Imran said.

Darshan Satish Kumar, a 14-year-old boy, was attacked in October last year. “It was scary,” he said, pointing to his injuries. He had gone into the woods to relieve himself but got lost in a brushy area.

The leopard pounced on him and carried him off some distance. His cries alerted people. It was Navratri time and people were dancing ‘garba-dandiya’. They rushed to his aid and scared the leopard away. The memories still haunt him.

Knowers warn others, but not everyone takes the dangers seriously. “A couple walks their dog every night. They bring bread, buy milk from my farm and feed the dog. I told them not to bring the dog but they lectured me. One day I heard screams… I rushed outside with a torch to see the couple running. The leopard had tried to grab the dog, but luckily the dog got away,” he says.

Kiran Bhoir, a resident of an Adivasi hamlet, saw a female with two cubs last week. “Six eyes shone. Immediately, I informed the people of the neighborhood”, he says.

Nikit Surve, a researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society-India, has done many camera traps in the area. “Our research indicates that interactions between humans and leopards are common. The Warlis, the indigenous tribes inhabiting the region, accept the presence of leopards. They also seem to know their behavior,” he says.

Bibash Ghosh, a resident of the western suburbs of Mumbai, has seen leopards on several occasions. “Some time ago a leopard visited our compound. We heard the dogs barking all night long. The next morning we saw CCTV footage of a leopard resting here,” he says.

In September last year Nirmaladevi Singh, 68, was attacked by a leopard but she fought it off and the CCTV footage went viral online. She backed away twice before she found the courage to hit the leopard with her cane. She suffered injuries to her face, neck, elbow, chest and back.

Hearing her screams, her family and neighbors rushed over. The leopard retreated and disappeared into the jungle.

NATIONAL PARK SNAPSHOT

Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) is a good case study for understanding the conflict between man and nature. SGNP is pure wilderness in the heart of Mumbai, surrounded by a population of two million people. In terms of space, the SGNP is about one sixth of Mumbai. It is a miracle that a jungle exists in Mumbai.

Considered the green lung of Mumbai, SGNP is the only national park in the world to be located within the metropolitan boundaries of a bustling city. SGNP and its surroundings are home to some 47 leopards – the highest density of leopards in the world.

It covers 104 km². If you include the green coverage of areas like Aarey Milk Colony, Film City and Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay in Powai, that’s about 140 km².

The SGNP is not only important for Mumbai, but for the greater Mumbai metropolitan area, which includes parts of Thane, Palghar and Raigad districts. The leopard (Panthera pardus) is the main carnivore in the park. Often the park makes headlines for human-wildlife conflicts involving leopards.

WHO WATCHES THEM?

Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) launched a radio collar project last February. Conservationist Vidya Athreya from Bengaluru and wildlife researcher Nikit Surve from Mumbai, both associated with the Wildlife Conservation Society-India, play a key role.

So far, they have radio-collared and released four leopards between the ages of three and eight. Their names are Savitri, Maharaja, Kranti and Jeevan.

An ongoing study has revealed that Maharaja, a male leopard, walked from SGNP to Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary crossing the busy Chinchoti Bhiwandi highway and Vasai-Diva railway line in Mumbai. He walked about 62 km in six days, covering 8 km during the day and 54 km at night.

On November 9, 2021, another female leopard (C33-Delta), fitted with a radio collar by Bilal Habib of Wildlife Institute of India, was seen in a housing complex at Goregaon East in Mumbai.

“The forest department and a team of researchers are constantly monitoring its activity and there is nothing to panic about,” says G Mallikarjuna, the director of the SGNP. “Another would be released in the coming weeks,” says Vidya.

Ajoba’s movements

A 2014 Marathi film was based on a radio-collared leopard that walked 120 km, weaving through human settlements to reach its home, the jungle. The leopard and the film were called Ajoba.

April 16, 2009: Adult male leopard rescued from a well in a village near Pune.

May 1, 2009: Radio-collared and released at Malshej Ghats in the Western Ghats.

May-July 2009: Route crossing tracks, highways and pockets of civilization, swimming through the Vasai stream and entering one of the main areas of the SGNP, Mumbai.

July 17, 2009: No GPS collar reading due to tracking device malfunction.

December 1, 2011: Killed in an accident by a heavy vehicle on the NH 8.

Warlis worships Waghoba, the big cat deity

The indigenous Warli people of Maharashtra worship a deity called Waghoba, mainly to protect themselves from the big cats.

About 150 shrines for Waghoba have been documented across Maharashtra, and some are found in the Sanjay Gandhi-Aarey National Park and its environs.

“It is because of Waghoba that we are here,” says Prakash Bhoir, a tribal leader who commands respect in the close-knit tribal community. The deity combines the characteristics of the leopard and the tiger.

“In this area, the leopard reigns and we must respect Waghoba,” says Prakash, a resident of Keltipada.

A look at his home reveals the artist in him. It is filled with musical instruments and Warli paintings hang on the wall.

There are 27 Adivasi hamlets in the Aarey region, 11 inside the national park and two near IIT-Bombay. “We have lived here for ages. We have co-existed with divinity. The leopards don’t harm us and we take every precaution,” says Prakash, recalling how his generation used to sleep outside at night.

Now that’s not possible because the leopards are looking for prey. “Actually, it’s not the leopards that wander off but the people that invade the jungle,” he says, adding that the Adivasi colonies have existed for centuries.

“Just like birds and animals, we live in the jungle and Waghoba protects us,” Prakash said.

For his son’s wedding, the family had decorated the house with lights. Just as the rituals were about to begin, a leopard appeared. “Waghdev blessed the couple and left,” he said, smiling.

Prakash puts the finishing touches to a painting of the leopard.

“Sharing Spaces and Entanglements with Big Cats: The Warli and their Waghoba in Maharashtra, India” is the name of a study published last year.

Written by Ramya Nair, Dhee, Omkar Patil, Nikit Surve, Anish Andheria, John DC Linnell and Vidya Athreya, the article was published in a special issue of the journal “Frontiers of Conservation Science”.

The study was conducted by researchers from WCS-India, NINA, Norway and Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, and supported by the Wildlife Conservation Trust.

The Warlis believe that Waghoba protects them from the negative impact of sharing space with big cats if humans worship the deity and conduct rituals, especially during the annual Wagh Baras festival.

The researchers suggest that such reciprocal relationships facilitate the sharing of spaces between humans and leopards.

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