Mumbai “meow”ments: A story of urban leopards

How many cats in the picture? (Credits: Sanjay Gandhi National Park)

Everything is relative when you compare it to something in India. Be it the population, the time needed to travel somewhere, and surprisingly, even the leopard population in Mumbai. I was quite taken aback when I first came to know about the so called “urban leopards” in Mumbai while watching a BBC documentary. Even though I had been to Mumbai, I never knew that the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in Mumbai, had one of the highest densities of leopard populations in the world. I decided to get in touch with ‘Mumbaikars for SGNP’, an initiative taken by the Maharashtra Forest Department to manage and create awareness on human-leopard interactions. My appeal towards the topic kept increasing as I got to know more about this unique leopard population in the heart of one of the most populated cities in the world. One thing led to another, and I decided to spend 6 months in Mumbai to understand the topic and do my Masters’ dissertation on the same.

I arrived in Mumbai in mid-July 2017, and that was going to be my first time living in a city in India. Mumbai is a city where you have to just get into the crowd and move with the flow; from the crowded trains to the bustling streets from where you can buy undies, spicy food and smartphones all in a 2-metre radius. It takes time and patience to understand the city, but once you do, you will fall in love with the city that’s active all day long. I met some of the officials working for Mumbaikars for SGNP, but most of their work dealt with creating awareness sessions. And on one of these occasions, I happened to meet Mr. Nikit Surve, who is a doctoral candidate from Wildlife Conservation Society, and is doing his dissertation on ecology of leopards in SGNP. I spoke to Nikit on few occasions and we both were interested in seeing how garbage would potentially be the main factor in leopards coming out of the national park and we decided to work together, Nikit being my field supervisor.

Stray animals in many parts of the world, for better or worse, survive on the garbage that’s been thrown away by us humans, the “most advanced race” in the world. The same goes for stray dogs and pigs and other domestic animals in Mumbai that depend on residents for survival by directly getting fed or indirectly through scavenging for garbage. And for anyone who has been to India or many other Asian countries, it’s a known fact that there is no shortage of stray dogs around. Leopards being quite opportunistic animals, would happily predate on these stray animals if given a chance. And for leopards living at such close proximity with humans in Mumbai, this fiesta of stray animals around is pretty irresistible.

Domestic cows and stray pigs eating garbage at one of the sites

But this comes at a cost, leopards end up coming into human settlements around the periphery of the national park in search of stray animals. Tall walls or fences aren’t really an issue for leopards as they are good climbers and are often seen resting on walls bordering the national park in residential areas. Leopards are very wary of humans, so they tend to avoid close human contact in most cases unless taken by surprise. The attacks on humans are mostly accidental, and incidents of fatal accidents are quite rare. Humans and leopards have coexisted in and around SGNP and conflicts to some extent have always persisted. Big cats have been revered and deified among the tribal communities in and around SGNP. Waghoba, the large felid god has several shrines inside SGNP where the locals worship their deity.

A frequent visitor having his evening naps at one of the walls separating the national park and a residential area

Starting with ground work proved to be very hard in the beginning as I forgot to take into consideration that I came in the monsoon season. This was also the time in 2017 when the city of Mumbai got flooded and there were many casualties and damages involved. Post this event, we came up with a plan on how to understand the relationship between leopards and the abundant garbage around the city. The first step was to pick up potential study sites for conducting field work. Covering the whole periphery of SGNP was near impossible given the time taken to cover between each location was very long and that I had to do all the field work by myself, so we decided to do all the work only along the western periphery.

After a month long’s search with multiple trial and errors, we came up with 6 locations ranging from sites with abundant garbage to sites with no garbage for my study where leopards have been known to visit occasionally. To study how much of an influence garbage had on the leopards, we knew that it was crucial to study the domestic animals, particularly stray dogs, as the leopards were most attracted to them. Most domestic animals that we know of evolved in a way that they weren’t being hunted in the wild, making them an easy target for predators like leopards.

When you underestimated the depth of the puddle

I started with looking at how dependent stray dogs were on garbage. To do this, I decided to spend days at a stretch at each garbage site observing the behaviour of dogs. I was able to identify the dogs individually based on their distinct skin patterns, their gender and their age. This gave me an understanding on how much time each dog spent doing various activities at the garbage dumps. But sitting next to garbage dumps from morning to evening continuously did ultimately end up with me getting dengue fever which wasn’t much fun.

When you are distracted for a belly rub while making observations

The next step was to get an estimate of the dog populations at these site which was followed by setting up camera traps at these sites to understand the movement of leopards. The residents at most sites were very friendly and helpful in setting up the cameras and in giving me information on if anyone in their neighborhood had heard or seen a leopard in the previous nights and would tell stories about these magnificent animals. Although this could be much of my perception, it was quite interesting to see that people living in much close proximity to leopards were highly tolerant of them and believed that the animal had an equal right to live there as anyone else even though their chickens or goats might get taken occasionally. And there were kids who even though were very sweet, never missed an opportunity to be mischievous. One time this kid figured out where the camera was placed, and he peed in front of the camera while the camera kept taking pictures and in the end he looked at the camera and gave a thumbs up. I should have probably confronted him, but for all I know that might have been his regular spot.

Setting up cameras with the help of residents

After six months of struggle and a lot of new experiences and having met some amazing people, it was time for me to return to Munich and analyse the data. The results did end up showing that an increase in garbage resulted in more stray animals being around and in turn more frequent visits by leopards. Residential areas had more organised garbage collection, but it didn’t necessarily mean that there were lesser dogs. People still fed dogs around, but the presence of security guards and high-fenced walls did reduce leopards coming out to these places compared to slightly more rural areas where garbage was more out in the open and there were stray animals roaming around everywhere.

Just a leopard on his after-dinner stroll, image from a CCTV camera

The national park in Mumbai has been home to these leopards and many other animals even before Mumbai was a city. This is the same everywhere, where the wild animals and the nature around have been the ones suffering in order to meet our ever-increasing demands for resources. Rapid urbanisation around SGNP has almost entirely isolated this unique population of urban leopards. But these animals have found ways to thrive in this uncommon ecosystem. Interestingly, a recent study has shown that leopards might actually be helping in bringing down rabies bites by reducing the dog populations around SGNP.

Leopard using the trail on an early evening that is used by the nearby residents till
late night on most days.

I’ve often been asked on what would be the best solution to deal with this problem? Is it removing all the dogs around the area? If yes, what would happen to the leopards? There is no one definite answer. Leopards have always thrived in this area and will continue to do so given the time for them to adapt to the absence of dogs or any other domestic prey. A sudden removal of all dogs or domestic animals would create more problems to the leopards that have been living in such small home ranges only due to the fact that there is such abundant food around. There is plenty of wild prey in this national park including spotted deers, sambhar, macaques and wild boars on which they will continue to survive. When we use the term “wildlife management”, it’s got essentially more to deal with humans rather than animals. Its crucial to save what’s left of our forests and wildlife, we won’t survive for much longer without them.

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