Adarsh Nagar leopard crosses a road in Aarey. Photo by Rajesh Sanap.

 

Bindu, the leopard who feels at home among humans

Bindu was first spotted by the team in Aarey in 2011 when she was a cub. Even then, she was a curious creature, closely following the team members after they spotted her. Bindu was shy but always had an affinity for human-dominated landscapes. From a five-star hotel to housing societies and even a film set, Bindu was often spotted roaming the concrete jungle that came up in and around Aarey. There were multiple attempts to relocate Bindu to the core SGNP area but she made her way back to Aarey, establishing it as her home, alongside her human neighbours.

Monitoring Bindu was an interesting study in leopard behaviour for the team, given that Bindu had such a unique personality.  

But are leopards usually so comfortable around humans? “The area where the Royal Palms housing society, where Bindu has been spotted, is located right between the Aarey Milk Colony and Sanjay Gandhi National Park. It is likely that this site was a corridor for leopards moving between Aarey and the national park,” said Sanap.

Leopards do not imagine boundaries the way humans do. For Bindu, the housing society location was still part of the territory she regularly traversed.

Bindu, a female leopard, sitting on a wall in Royal Palms housing society, which lies between Aarey Milk Colony and SGNP. Leopards live in close proximity to humans across the country and are the among the most adaptable species of big cats. Photo by Palash Kashyap.

Leopards can share spaces with humans as long as prey population (both domestic and wild) remain sufficient and their habitat is protected.

In Aarey currently, the Warlis, an indigenous tribe inhabiting the area appear to accept the presence of leopards as a normal occurrence. They also appear to know about the behaviour of the animal. The knowledge and information of how to avoid conflict with leopards and peacefully live with them is being passed onto them over generations, according to a 2018 report on leopards in Sanjay Gandhi National Park and its surrounding areas, by wildlife biologist Nikit Surve in collaboration with the director of SGNP, Anwar Ahmed. 

“The tribal communities have a deeper understanding of their wild neighbours which automatically creates deeper empathy and enables them to share the space and coexist peacefully,” said  Athreya about the established tribal communities living in Aarey for decades.

For the newer population that has moved into and around Aarey, the data collected by the team is key in building awareness. “We have camera traps that show humans and leopards in the same location at the same time,” said Surve, who is conducting this research as part of his post doctoral studies. “The people may not even be aware that was a leopard in that location.” Such data helps the team provide proof of human and leopard coexistence in their awareness programs.

Bindu was spotted in Aarey since she was a cub. She was observed to be shy but had an affinity towards human dominated landscapes. Photo by Steven van Dortmond.

 

Chandani, the three-legged leopard

Three-legged Chandani was a veteran of Aarey, observed by the team over five years. In 2016, the traps laid out for catching wild boars was where Chandani met her end.

“Chandani had one paw missing when we discovered her. There is a common misconception that injured animals attack human children. But Chandani was never known for attacking humans,” said Sanap. In fact Chandani had her own little cub, an unlikely occurrence for an injured female leopard.

Video by Prabhu Swami

While humans feared that one day she would attack their children, the fear should have been Chandani’s. Her child too succumbed to a trap laid out by humans.

“She was our star. A fighter,” said Sanap. “She successfully coexisted in Aarey despite missing a paw. Had no conflict.”

Chandani peeping out of a thicket. She succumbed to her injuries inflicted by a snare trap. Photo by Prabhu Swami.

 

Luna, the mother-leopard that’s rearing the next generation

Holding the fort for leopard population in Aarey, is the female leopard Luna. First spotted in 2015, Luna is the most documented leopard of the area. She has raised two litters in Aarey and has a third litter under her watch at present.

Continued monitoring of Luna could give more insight into the leopards of Aarey, their behaviour and their adaptation to the landscape as humans take over.

“Mumbai is now so populous and overcrowded that it is no more a congenial home for wild animals,” says the EIA report which gives  environmental clearance for the upcoming metro project in Aarey. “Greater Mumbai at present comprises mainly of residential and industrial areas. At present there is no forest in the true sense except the national park at Borivali, extending over an area of about 19.18 sq km. Hence, wildlife as such is almost extinct from Mumbai.” 

[Drag to view] Camera trap footage has helped researchers and officials to track and study the presence of leopards in Aarey. Photos by Thane Forest Department (Territorial)/AareyGP.

Dismissal of wildlife as “almost extinct” by such reports only highlights the importance of work that the team is doing in camera trapping and documenting visibly existing wildlife in Aarey.

“With camera traps, we can identify the leopards — something that we can’t do manually,” said Surve, adding that conservation takes time and continuous monitoring with tools like camera traps over a long term will help understand leopard population better. 

“Through the data collection work, we get an idea of the movement of leopards. When there is a human-leopard conflict, the forest department is called in. Data helps us pinpoint which is the individual leopard involved in the conflict,” said Ramgaonkar. “We get good support from citizens. We share information about sightings. Through collaboration with people doing scientific study, we can help citizens understand leopards and not panic.” 

The team of researchers and volunteers has put together their findings in Aarey in a report to the forest department.

Mumbai, a role model for human-leopard coexistence?

Athreya feels that Mumbai can be a model for collaborative efforts by citizens, NGOs and government to deal with leopards sensitively. Given that leopards are found in urban areas all over the country — Gurugram, Bengaluru, Guwahati, Shimla and more cities — Mumbai’s success story could be adapted to other places. 

Surve too believes that Mumbai has pretty much an ideal situation in the understanding of leopards in urban spaces and handling human-leopard interactions. “Citizens are aware and often provide us information when they encounter a leopard,” he said. The media in Mumbai is also sensitised on the issue of human and leopard interactions and reporting has become more accurate, added Athreya.

Leopards who have been coexisting alongside humans for a while in Mumbai, understand the habits and schedules of the residents and plan their activities to avoid interactions, explains Surve. “Removal of leopards from an area is not a solution because another leopard will always take over the space. You rather have a leopard that has been living there for a while because it has adapted to the residents,” adding that leopards have proven that they can coexist peacefully with humans, it’s the humans that need to reciprocate.

 

Luna and a male at a watering hole in Aarey, installed for birds and other animals by regular walkers and joggers. Photo by Ranjeet Jadhav.

The tribal communities in Aarey that worship the Waghoba deity — representing usually a tiger or leopard — believe it is the protector of the jungle and of them. 

But who is going to protect Waghoba? The question around the future of leopards in Aarey looms. Could these be their last days here? What will happen to the leopards once the infrastructure project is in full swing? Will the leopards adapt or fade away? 

Sanap feels that the leopards have proven that they are willing to live alongside humans. It’s now the turn of the humans to do their bit for peaceful coexistence with the beings that came before them to Aarey Milk Colony. Said Sanap, “Animals are willing to coexist. Humans should now take responsibility.”

A leopard statue awaits inauguration near the metro car shed site in Aarey. With the infrastructure projects and other man-made pressures, the fate of the leopards remains uncertain. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

 

Banner image: Luna, a female leopard, photographed with a DSLR camera trap in Aarey. Photo by Ranjeet Jadhav.

Article published by Kartik Chandramouli
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