Leopard-Human Conflict in Mumbai

By: Megan Draheim

In December 2013, CLiGS will be assembling a project team to explore this complex urban socio-ecological management challenge in Mumbai, and to engage with some of the actors involved in addressing this situation.

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 also 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 park earlier that day, we glimpsed some of the ways that people use the park – everything from grabbing a bit of solitude to hanging out with friends, to providing a community for local indigenous groups, and of course as a provider of ecosystem services for Mumbai (including 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), at times conflict has ensued, either because people simply see a leopard and grow concerned, or in some cases because a leopard attacked a person. The group is engaging both the community and the government to develop best practices to prevent such incidences. 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. Behavior change, then, is key to preventing and mitigating human-wildlife conflict. I believe that one of the main challenges conservation biologists working in these urban system face is getting people to accept that nature really is a part of cities – including sometimes predators! Once people understand this, it’s much 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 learn what we can do 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.