Until a few months ago, communities living inside Aarey’s Milk Colony in Goregaon East – located near Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) – had no fear of walking on their own. deserted paths among the bushes after sunset. However, things have changed dramatically over the past two months.
Colonies that have shared spaces with leopards for decades have been the subject of a series of big cat attacks since August 31. Nine attacks in the past two months at various settlements in Aarey have terrified residents and highlighted the growing human-animal conflict in the region.
Four-year-old Ayush Yadav was jumped on and almost dragged into the forest. If it hadn’t been for the fearless locals, who ran behind the leopard and used sticks to chase him away, the family would have lost the boy.
In Ekta Nagar, one of the settlements in the heart of Aarey, Rohit Tilak is now anxious and reluctant to come out of his house on his own. The 10-year-old boy was hit on his way home one September evening. âFortunately, he was not seriously injured. But he’s scared. I’m always there when he’s playing outside. He no longer walks alone, âsaid Rohit’s mother.
The attacks also sparked a debate between locals living in fear and the forestry department over monitoring the entire leopard population in Aarey, which has dense forest as well as human settlements.
Life after the attacks
Aarey Milk Colony, contiguous to SGNP, covers 3,166 acres. It has an estimated population of 50,000 with 28 tribal hamlets and slum pockets, and 36 livestock farms as well as a good patch of forest.
The kuccha roads of these settlements are almost deserted at sunset, if one has to go out it is rarely alone and always armed with flashlights. Boosting their protection, residents of Ekta Nagar in Unit 31 pooled money to install CCTV cameras to monitor felines at night. Others rely on stray dogs. The strayers, whom the locals have adopted to guard their homes, warn them and sometimes even prey on the leopards.
Some residents have invested in emergency lighting and high powered flashlights. Nandini Sanjay, a resident of government quarters in Unit 4, said: âThe public toilet is not even a minute’s walk from my room, but I don’t go out alone. I spotted leopards on the narrow path to the public toilet and also on the roof. I am always on the lookout. “
Mayur Vikram Brahme, a resident of Unit 31 and also an awareness-raising volunteer for life with leopards, said: âAfter the attacks, the grass and waist-deep bushes were cleaned up, and the garbage in the area – which attracted stray pigs and dogs which prey on leopards – has been cleaned up. Fifty houses got together and installed 10 CCTV cameras to monitor areas for leopards.
Following the increase in attacks, Mumbaikars for SGNP, a joint initiative of the Forestry and Citizens Department, which addresses human-leopard interaction in SGNP and Aarey, held awareness sessions where attacks were recorded and in potentially threatened colonies.
People, especially children, were advised to travel in groups of at least six. The idea is to scare off leopards by making noise and keeping numbers safe. Parents were invited to carry the little children in their arms. Residents were asked to keep their areas free of litter and garbage and not to relieve themselves in the open.
As night falls, forestry department officials use a megaphone to warn people of the danger of a nearby leopard and to move in groups and avoid dense forest areas.
Over the past month, the changes in Aarey Milk Colony have been in full swing. Areas that have long demanded new public toilets are getting them, old solar street lights are being repaired, overgrown bushes and grasses on the trails are cleaned up.
As authorities and volunteers call for calm and inform citizens that there is only one leopard behind the attacks and that the entire leopard population is not to be blamed, the citizens want all leopards to be captured and removed from Aarey or kept under constant surveillance. .
âLocals have shared space with leopards for ages, but the attacks have made them consider the worst. In our sessions we address and clarify misconceptions about the big cat, call for support from citizens. The involvement of the locals as volunteers helped us to calm a few who threatened us with protests and demanded the capture of the leopards. Until the leopard problem is caught, residents will have to live with increased precautions in their daily lives, âsaid Shailesh Rao, a decade-long volunteer with MFSGNP.
Many who have seen leopards throughout their lives in Aarey were confused about the increase in attacks. The delay in capturing the animals and the increase in attacks have also given rise to misconceptions. In one of the sessions, the MFSGNP volunteers were blamed for creating the fear of leopards. A group of locals accused authorities of unnecessarily highlighting the presence of the leopards and claimed they were trying to spread fear and push locals out of Aarey.
Shankar Palani, a local and MFSGNP volunteer, said, âThe most common question we get in our sessions is why the leopards are attacking us and is the forestry department trying to chase us away? Fear now takes the form of anger among the locals.
Leopards of Aarey
The leopard population at the Aarey Dairy Colony is small and often studied with leopards from the neighboring SGNP, which has one of the highest leopard densities in urban areas. According to a 2015 survey by the SGNP, 35 leopards live in and around the national park, and Aarey is one of their dominant habitats.
In Aarey there are around four to five adult leopards at any one time, including a transient population that moves between Aarey and SGNP. Four adult females – Adarsh ââNagar, Bindu, Chandani and Luna – are the most photographed leopards in the region.
A group of researchers and wildlife enthusiasts, in collaboration with the forestry department, watch the leopards in Aarey. The ultimate goal of the study is to facilitate peaceful coexistence between leopards and humans and to change the perception towards big cats.
The Waghoba Temple in Aarey, which houses the idol of a big cat, highlights the tribal association with leopards. Resembling a tiger, the idol is revered by the tribal communities living in the area.
Locals pray to Waghdev to protect them when they venture into the forests, to guard their homes, and at weddings or family celebrations. The community celebrates the leopard at their annual Waghbaras Festival, which takes place all night long, to pray and appease the spirit of Waghdev.
Prakash Bhoir, a tribal chief who lived for over 50 years in Keltipada, a settlement of 100 Warli houses in Aarey settlement, has seen and lived alongside leopards all his life. âFor us, the leopard is a figure that guards our homes. We regard the leopard or Waghdev as their deity which they pray first on all auspicious occasions. “
He added: âWe shouldn’t blame the leopards. It is we humans who are moving more and more towards its territory. The leopard did not reach our door, but we did reach inside his house. The leopard hunting area has been tightened and brought closer to our villages, where there is access to food such as dogs, pigs and poultry.
Recounting his most recent encounter, Bhoir said: âAs I was decorating my house for my son’s wedding and getting ready for the night, I saw a leopard looking at me out the window. He looked around and disappeared into the forest.
Leopard attacks on people peaked in Aarey in 2002 – with 25 incidents in six months. Most of these have been attributed to leopards that have moved from other forest patches or have been relocated.
In the aftermath of the attacks, then chief forest curator Sunil Limaye and his successors Vikas Gupta and Aarey’s CEO Anwar Ahmed launched programs involving the general public called “Living with the Leopards.” “.
The program, seen as a model for human-leopard coexistence, put an almost complete end to leopard attacks for 15 years. Until 2017, when residents became angry after seven assaults, including five children and the death of a two-year-old, near Maroshipada, a hamlet near Film City.
Forest officials and wildlife experts discovered that a three-and-a-half-year-old leopard was attacking. It took 54 days to finally trap the animal, named Regulus, by the group. The leopard was taken to the SGNP rescue center, where it still lives in captivity.
Forest department officials have said the decision to capture a leopard is the last resort. A sighting of a leopard, the big cat hunting its prey, does not justify a capture or a translocation.
An animal is only captured after it has been designated a “problem animal”, that is, a specific animal with a verified, documented history of attacks on humans, livestock, or damage to property on them. public lands.
Problem animals, once captured, spend their lives in captivity and are never released into the wild. According to the 2011 MOEFCC guidelines for managing human-leopard conflict, the decision to capture an animal should be the last option, and animals trapped after deliberate attacks on humans should never be released into the wild.
Forestry officials have said that after the attacks there is increased pressure from locals to capture and move the animals. However, wildlife experts have repeatedly pointed out that removing leopards from an area is not a solution as another leopard will always occupy the space.
A study by Vidya Athreya, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society-India, who oversaw the Living with Leopards program in Aarey, and her colleagues in 2000 in Junnar found that the translocation increased leopard attacks against people near them. sites to let go.
During the three-year translocation period from 2001 to 2003, leopard attacks increased to 17 per year, compared to an average of 4 per year during the eight years prior to the start of translocation.