Urban wildlife

Under spotlight


The Waghoba temple in Mumbai’s Aarey Milk Colony (AMC) houses an idol of a big cat, worshipped by tribal communities living in the area. A few metres away, a new statue is set to be inaugurated in Aarey — that of a leopard — in reverence of the feline residents that the locals share their space with, in the 13-square-km AMC.

The leopard population in AMC is small and often studied together with the leopards in the bordering Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), which has one of the highest density of leopards in the world. But with Aarey now a proposed site for a metro project, the wildlife of AMC is in focus.

The green patch in the midst of urban Mumbai’s western suburbs is identified for a metro car shed for the Mumbai Metro Rail Corridor line from Colaba to SEEPZ (Special Electronics Export Processing Zone) in the Andheri East area, which runs between south and north Mumbai.

The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report 2012 for the proposed metro project in Aarey stated that ‘no wildlife has been observed at project site’. But camera traps show otherwise. A group of researchers and wildlife enthusiasts, in collaboration with the forest department, has diligently been recording data of the wildlife there, including the elusive predators that have made Aarey their home.

Spotted habitants

In Aarey, at any given time, there are four to five adult leopards, including a transient population that moves between Aarey and SGNP. Four adult females, Adarsh Nagar, Bindu, Chandani and Luna, have been regularly showing up in data recorded over various periods since this specific monitoring activity began in Aarey in 2015.

The initiative is led by a motley group of wildlife biologist Nikit Surve, honorary wildlife warden Mayur Kamath, journalist Ranjeet Jadhav, researcher Rajesh Sanap and team members Imran Udat, Kaushal Dubey, Prabhu Swami, Hitendra Pachkale, Sudam Nawale, Kunal Chaudhary, Satish Lot and Shahid.

Some of the members were familiar with awareness programmes through their former work with ‘Mumbaikars for SGNP’, a ‘forest department and citizen’ initiative to deal with human and leopard interaction in the neighbouring national park.

“We work in collaboration with citizens and researchers for monitoring the leopards in Aarey,” said Jitendra Ramgaonkar, Deputy Conservator of Forests, Thane. “We provide equipment, some labour, and our staff is already stationed in the area.”

“Leopards are among the most adaptable species of cats. They are comfortable in close proximity with humans,” said Dr Vidya Athreya, scientist at Wildlife Conservation Society India and expert in human-leopard interaction. This is significant in the wake of upcoming infrastructure projects in the area.

Take for instance Adarsh Nagar, the leopard who “doesn’t give a damn.” Named after a locality in Mumbai which she frequented, she was observed in Aarey for close to four months between 2012 and 2013. While leopards prefer to stay hidden, Adarsh Nagar was “quite a bold” leopard, according to Rajesh Sanap, a researcher with the team.“When a team from the BBC visited Aarey to get some footage for a documentary on leopards, Adarsh Nagar walked on the road for hours while the crew followed and filmed her,” he said. 

Then there’s Bindu, the leopard who feels at home among humans. She 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. Bindu was shy but always had an affinity for human-dominated landscapes.

Chandani, the three-legged leopard, was a veteran of Aarey, observed by the team for over five years. In 2016, the traps laid out for catching wild boars was where she met her end. “There is a misconception that injured animals attack human children. But she was never known for attacking humans; she was our star,” said Sanap. In fact, Chandani had her own cub, an unlikely occurrence for an injured female leopard.

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.

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 tribal communities have a deeper understanding of their wild neighbours, which creates empathy and lets them share space with the leopards,” said Athreya about the established tribal communities living in Aarey for decades.

For awareness

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.

“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.  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.

“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 the individual leopard involved in the conflict,” said Ramgaonkar.

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

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.

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