By Priya Ranganathan
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When Mumbai drifts off to sleep, its hidden citizens slink out of the shadows. Their spotted coats gleam in the dim glow of street lamps. There are leopards in my city, you see, and they reclaim this human-dominated region by night.
These big cats make their home in the dense city forest of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, also known as Borivali National Park. The park, and the nearby green spots such as Aarey Milk Colony, are safe spaces for big cats in this crowded megacity. Nearly 40 leopards live in this 104 sq. km. (25,699 acres) forest patch, sharing their home with adivasis (tribals who are legally allowed to live inside forests) and illegal settlers (who construct makeshift homes on forest land). These cats hunt spotted deer, wild piglets, and even stray dogs! Video camera footage from the buildings around my home in Goregaon, bordering Aarey Milk Colony, show leopards picking up stray dogs from housing blocks, straying close to people yet going unnoticed. Such is the ability of the leopard to remain unseen.
The leopard is possibly the most adaptable wild cat in the world, living in jungles, desert-like climates, and cities. But it too faces many threats including poaching for its soft spotted fur and internal organs (used in traditional medicines), accidents with cars and trains, conflict with people, and habitat loss. Many people who raise farm animals in rural India complain of leopards stealing goats and sheep. These cats are quick and agile; they often escape such encounters but sometimes they are cornered and killed. If a leopard accidentally injures a person, the animal is often targeted. This creates many issues and increases the bad reputation of this cat. Habitat loss is the main cause of most conflict. As forests shrink and settlements continue to grow around these forests, the available land for leopards to hunt and survive shrinks. The cats find themselves hunting outside forests to feed their young, thus coming close to human habitation and risking an encounter with people or vehicles.
Mumbai’s leopards have learnt to live in a city of over 18 million people, but these big cats must battle every day to retain their forest home. As youngsters, we can protest the cutting of city forests and advocate for keeping green spaces in our concrete jungles. There are many unseen citizens of our cities that will thank us for this!
About the Author:
Priya Ranganathan is a wetland ecologist and geologist by training who works in the wild Western Ghats. When she isn’t out wading through swamp forests, she can be found scribbling away in her notebook or practicing Bharatanatyam. Check out her website ‘On Life and Wildlife.’