Leopards in an urban forest

Print edition : July 30, 2004

The growing human casualties in attacks by leopards of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai highlight the increasing urban pressures on the park and the failure of the authorities, despite a court order, to take remedial measures.

in Mumbai

Forest Department personnel, along with workers, laying a trap for the leopards.-PAUL NORONHA

SINCE January this year, 14 people have died as a result of attacks by leopards in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai's northern suburb of Borivali. The majority of them were killed inside the park. Apparently, it is a case of man-animal conflict, a result of the ever-increasing urbanisation around the park. While two people were killed in 2002, the number rose to 12 last year. Although a solution for the problem does exist, its implementation is being stalled because of political expediency.

There are two theories about why the leopards are attacking people. One, during the breeding season mother leopards look for easy prey as they are hesitant to keep away from the cubs for long. Usually dogs fall easy prey. Since dogs are invariably found near human settlements, human beings too become victims. In an interview to Frontline over email, well-known conservationist and naturalist Dr. George Schaller said: "I have been told that many squatters live along the edge of the park and the area is also used as a dumping ground for garbage. This has attracted many dogs. Leopards like to eat dogs. When leaving the park the leopards come increasingly into contact with people. When big cats lose their fear of people, conflict will inevitably arise."

At a recent meeting of wildlife experts and the representatives of the Maharashtra Forest Department, it was decided to classify the Borivali big cats as "high risk animals" and not as man-eaters. The classification was based on a quick study of the leopards' behaviour which found that they did not seek out humans actively. Their attacks are thought to be more of a surprise reaction rather than a planned hunt. Wildlife experts say that in all probability the victims would have been squatting or lying down, positions that make them appear smaller than the leopards and thus prospective prey.

The second theory is that during the monsoon, since water is available all over the park, animals do not have to depend on waterholes. Usually leopards wait for their prey near waterholes but during the wet season their hunting range covers the entire park. Also, the lush vegetation of the monsoon season makes it difficult for prey to be stalked, so the leopards tend to look for easy game.

Another theory is that an increase in the leopard population and a fall in the prey population have forced leopards to target humans. The Forest Department says that the argument is baseless because the leopard-prey ratio has been stable for the past one decade. Although it is difficult to carry out an accurate census of these elusive animals, there are an estimated 30 to 33 leopards in the 103 sq km park which also supports more than an adequate population of chital, sambar and other, smaller, prey.

Although the prey-predator ratio has been steady, illegal human activity in and around the designated national park has increased. The land use pattern around it reveals that urban pressures are hemming in the park (see map). In the suburbs of Mulund and Borivali, for instance, residential complexes abut on to park terrain. Unplanned and unscrupulous development, primarily in the form of settlements, is responsible for the crisis.

A leopard that has been trapped.-PAUL NORONHA

A simple solution to the problem would be the construction of a wall around the park. Debi Goenka of the Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG) pointed out, "Neither the people nor the animals understand a line on paper. The wall has to be built to demarcate clearly the park from the rest of the city."

The construction of a wall was authorised by the Bombay High Court in 1997 but seven years later only 11 kilometres of the requisite 98-km boundary wall has been built. The court had also said that all settlements within the park would have to be demolished. Work on the wall remains stalled because the demolition has been carried out only partially. Some settlements still exist in the path of the wall or within the park's boundaries. The piecemeal demolition has caused what Goenka describes as a "honeycomb effect with built-up area interspersed with cleared area in which vegetation has grown". The imperfect clearing of the settlements has the potential to generate conflict because they form a perfect habitat for leopards.

The building of the wall is not plagued by the lack of funds since the Ministry of Environment and Forests has set aside money for the purpose. It is the continuing existence of illegal settlements on the periphery and within the park and political unwillingness to implement a High Court order calling for their demolition and the rehabilitation of the residents at an alternative site that is at the heart of the problem.

Attempts to save the park started in 1995. The series of events that have occurred since then epitomise the activities of citizens who want to achieve a balance between socio-economic realities and environmental conservation but are faced with insurmountable odds.

A wall separating the park and human settlements.-PAUL NORONHA

The Sanjay Gandhi National Park is the only national park in the world to be situated within the municipal limits of a metropolis, that too a congested one like Mumbai. Losing it just because a boundary wall cannot be constructed would remind one of the adage `for want of a nail the battle was lost'. In February 1995, the BEAG filed a petition seeking to save the park, pointing out that it was a protected forest under the Indian Forest Act and a notified park under the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act. Further, the petition stated, the park held two lakes that provided Mumbai with drinking water. The State government did not dispute the petition. In fact, it filed an affidavit admitting that 78,000 to 80,000 illegal huts did exist. Their presence was further confirmed by a satellite survey report of the Space Application Centre in Ahmedabad, which showed encroachment on 772.82 hectares of the park, 200 ha of which had built-up settlements valued then at about Rs.1,000 crores. The State government assured the court that measures were being taken to clear the encroachments and hence the court desisted from passing further orders.

When action was not taken even after 18 months, the petitioners approached the court again. Illegal electricity and telephone connections were made available by slumlords in an effort to claim rights over the land. Unlawful quarrying, illicit liquor distilling, and timber extraction were common. In addition, small-scale industries (including a bacon factory), trading and other non-forest activities were rampant within the park. In February 1997, a committee of government officials was constituted by the High Court to look into a scheme to shift the encroachers to other sites.

Based on the committee's findings, 27 recommendations were issued, one of which directed the authorities to conduct a survey of the inhabitants within the park. It said: "Any person found to be in possession of a hut for which he himself does not have a valid photo pass must be evicted forthwith and the structure demolished." It further stated that those persons whose names were not on the electoral rolls prepared with reference to January 1995 had to be removed from the park. Those whose names were on the 1995 and pre-1995 rolls were eligible for relocation by the State outside the park's boundaries within 18 months of March 13, 1997. In another significant recommendation, the committee wanted the State government to "construct a boundary wall with watchtowers every 500 metres to protect the National Park Division within a period of one year [from March 13, 1997]. Any interference in such construction shall be deemed to be a violation of the order of this Court and will be dealt with as contempt of the Court." However, the wall could be constructed only if the settlements were removed, for which there was little political will.

In July 1999, the Division Bench passed another important Interim Order. About 60,000 illegal structures existed at the time, of which 33,000 were pre-1995 ones. The rest were in the process of being demolished. The 33,000 "eligible encroachers" were to be shifted to the suburb of Kalyan where vacant government land was to be made available to them at Rs.7,000, paid in instalments. The process of identifying pitches and the readying of surrounding infrastructure and civic amenities was to be completed by January 2000. The offer is believed to have found favour with most people though some, in their individual capacity, took their cases to the Supreme Court where they are yet to be heard.

Encroachments within the park being razed after a committe formed as a result of an order by the Bombay High Court in 1997 recommended that they be demolished.-BOMBAY ENVIRONMENTAL ACTION GROUP

By March 2000, little had been done about the demolitions in the park and the court was constrained to observe: "It is a very sorry picture. Sorry in the sense that everyone is mindful of the human problems but for the national park in question, unfortunately very little has been done." Several affidavits and counter-affidavits dragged the case on to 2003, when matters deteriorated further. With an eye on the upcoming elections, the Chief Minister passed an oral order staying all demolitions. At around the same time, in September 2003, the High Court passed an order upholding the July 1999 order and further stated that the pending work should be completed by March 15 this year. In May this year, when the same Judges found that the work was at a standstill, they stayed their own order of September 2003.

While these proceedings, which one environmentalist has described as a "legal nightmare", continue, the Forest Department has been busy setting traps to catch the leopards. So far 19 leopards have been trapped and caged. The future of these animals is one of captivity, a decision that makes a mockery of the guidelines for conservation and national parks. Trapping the animals is just a knee-jerk reaction by the Forest Department and is aimed more, as one environmentalist said, at "placating rather than pursuing the real solution of segregating the park from the city". Trapping the animals is no solution also because there is no way of knowing whether the right animal has been trapped or whether more than one animal is involved in the attacks. The Forest Department says that caging the animals is a better option. Others think it is unlikely in view of the severity of the punishment for killing animals of an endangered species. The leopard is listed in Schedule 1 (endangered species) of the Wildlife Protection Act and the punishment for killing one is imprisonment for one to three years plus a fine of Rs.25,000.

While emotions have been running high over the killings, the target of ire should not be the leopards or the Forest Department. The blame for the 14 deaths lies entirely on the government which has dragged its feet over the implementation of the High Court Order in rehabilitating the eligible encroachers.

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