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Leopards in Mumbai

July 11, 2014
Residential encroachment in SGNP, (c) MMD 2013

Residential encroachment in SGNP, (c) MMD 2013

Last summer I had the pleasure of traveling to India to meet some conservation scientists who work with leopards in Sanjay Ghandi National Park, a huge greenspace in Mumbai, one of the largest urban areas in the world. At about 40 square miles, it’s one of the largest urban parks anywhere (technically, like Washington D.C’s Rock Creek Park, it only shares a border with Mumbai on three sides; the fourth side borders the suburbs). I wrote a blog post for Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability about the trip, which I’m re-printing below.

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On a high floor of an apartment building in northern Mumbai, India, Sanjay Ghandi National Park (SGNP) was laid out in front of us. My fellow-CLiGS colleague, Courtney Kimmel, and I were being shown around the area by Sunetro Ghosal, a researcher in Mumbai who is affiliated with Mumbaikars for SGNP, a group of organizations and individuals who work to protect SGNP and its resident flora and fauna. Sunetro brought us to this building to meet a couple who were actively involved with the group, and to show us the view from their apartment. Not only could we see the verdant greenness of the park’s vegetation during the rainy season, but also several informal houses and shacks built into the park itself. In fact, even the high-rise building we were standing in was built (illegally) on parkland. That case, and others like it, has been settled in the courts, but is a great illustration of one of the major challenges the park’s management faces: encroachment.

But really we were there to talk about another, closely related issue. SGNP has a resident leopard population, and there are also leopards who live in the neighborhoods surrounding the park. In a city with such a high density of human residents, it’s hard to imagine that there’s room for these large cats, but these intelligent, adaptable animals are full of surprises.

While driving and walking through the area earlier that day, we glimpsed some of the ways that people use the park – everything from grabbing a bit of solitude or hanging out with friends, to providing a community for local indigenous groups. Of course the park is also a provider of ecosystem services for Mumbai, including containing large reservoirs that supply some of the city’s water. Managing a park for all of these (and more) uses is hard enough, but the needs of the non-human residents and users needs to be taken into account as well.

Although by and large the local leopard population tries to steer clear of humans (most of the time people don’t even know they’re there), conflict does happen on occasion, either because a person is attacked or because people simply see a leopard and grow concerned. Mambaikars for SGNP is engaging both the community and the government to develop best practices to prevent such incidents. For example, when people see a leopard, a crowd often gathers which can upset the leopard and make him feel threatened. He might then strike out against a person in an attempt to get away. At other times, people have been mistaken for prey animals (especially at night). At the end of the day, the best way people can prevent negative interactions with leopards is by modifying their own behavior and landscape (cleaning up garbage, which attracts feral dogs — a favorite prey item — playing music and/or staying with another person when you’re outside at night, etc.). That’s of course a hard sell, and something that I’ve seen with my own work with coyotes in urban and suburban parts of the US. Oftentimes people are quick to call on the government to “fix” the problem, usually by removing the animals in question (with coyotes, often through lethal control, and with leopards, often by trapping and relocating them). This, however, can actually increase conflict because of the complex ecology and behavior of these species. Human behavior change, then, is key to preventing and mitigating human-wildlife conflict. I believe that one of the main challenges facing conservation biologists who work in these urban system is getting people to accept that nature really is a part of cities – including predators! If people accept this, it’s easier to make the case that these neighborhoods and parks belong to non-human animals as well, and that we need to take their needs into consideration and do what we can to coexist with them. In our modern world, however, many are resistant to this – people have become accustomed to believing that the world can be divided into places where humans dominate (the “built environment”) and places where wildlife dominates (“nature”). This so-called “nature/culture divide” is a false dichotomy – nature exists everywhere, even in dense urban areas, and humans have an impact on even the most remote wildernesses.

Groups like Mumbaikars for SGNP are working hard to break through this binary way of seeing the world, which serves both a practical (lessening leopard-human conflict) and (perhaps secondarily) a philosophical purpose. It was exciting to see their work in action and to be able to compare it to efforts made in the US with coyotes.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 21, 2014 3:01 pm

    I watched a BBC documentary on this subject, it’s quite unnerving really to have carnivores roaming at random!!

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