As night falls on the lush forests of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivali, the entry for all other vehicles is curtailed in the area. Only one silencer-free forest jeep announces its presence in the woods by making occasional rounds. The men seated in this noisy jeep are the ones who have been working incessantly to avoid human-animal conflict in and around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park — a 103 square-kilometre protected area with at least 38 leopards calling it home. After over a decade of loss of lives due to leopard attacks, the incidents have nullified for the past two years.
“Mutual coexistence is the key. The leopard is a shy, poor animal. It has been widely misunderstood, so it has been wrongly demonised. It barely ever wants to attack human beings. The first thing it does after seeing a human is run away. And we want to kill it, displace it. Let us not forget that this huge forest survives today because of the leopard. It is at the top of the food chain. It ensures that this forest which acts as the lungs of this over-polluted city, flourishes,” says Sanjay Pagare, team leader of the leopard rescue team of Sanjay Gandhi National Park.
The Sanjay Gandhi National Park is a rare example of the co-existence of the wild with hyper-urbanisation. The city’s western suburbs like Goregaon, Borivali, Malad, and the neighbouring Thane district share borders with the jungle. SGNP, wedged between Borivali and Thane, is home to more than 274 species of birds, 35 species of mammals, 78 species of reptiles and amphibians, 170 species of butterflies and over a staggering 1,300 species of plants, according to its officials. “On top of this entire chain is the leopard. This forest survives and thrives because of it,” said Pagare.
The rescue team headed by him has conducted various workshops and training programmes in Maharashtra. But the team is painfully media-shy. They have refused awards in the fear that the team spirit might get affected if only a few of the members are awarded. The rescue team goes patrolling, conducts sensitisation workshops for residents in Mumbai, Thane and surrounding areas. They also regularly visit the tribal belt which is inhabited by the leopards, to conduct sensitisation programmes. Apart from this, the team is always at the beck and call of the emergency helpline which intimates them of any leopard attacks, or leopard straying into human settlements. The first priority then is to rescue the leopard without causing any damage.
Till two years ago, the human-animal conflict used to regularly take its toll on both sides of the fence. The fiercely territorial leopards would be trapped and displaced. As they would stray into human settlements due to the new surroundings, more victims would be mauled, killed. The worst victims were toddlers, children and women who used to venture out at early hours to attend the call of nature.
Thereafter, groups of citizens and the forest department came together to hold sensitisation programmes for dense clusters of people living close to the boundary of the national park in a city with a huge space crunch. At present, over 20 million people surround the national park which is spread over nearly 20% of the geographical area of Mumbai.
“Many people pay crores of rupees to stay close to the national park so they can breathe fresh air. But the danger of human-animal conflict increases with proximity to the park,” said a person who came for morning walk at the national park.
BREAKING THE VICIOUS CYCLE
Talking about the times when leopard attacks were common in Mumbai, Pagare said the reasons for it were varied. “You have to first understand why a leopard attacks. Leopards don’t attack human beings. Stray dogs are their favourite meal. Anything below the line of their vision is prey for them. Therefore toddlers, children and squatting human beings face attacks. Also, when a leopard is displaced, she/he strays easily in human settlement,” Pagare said.
So the first step for the team was sensitisation of people. “We told people to keep their area clean. Dumping garbage on the streets attracts stray dogs. When stray dogs frequent a place, it is visited by leopards who find stray dogs an easy and favourite meal. Therefore, a clean area is comparatively more leopard-proof,” he said.
The analysis of leopard attacks revealed that generally women and children who went out at odd hours to attend the call of nature, fell prey to leopards. “A squatting human being looks like a completely different creature than a standing human being. Analysis revealed that standing human beings were not attacked because they are above the line of vision for the leopard,” he said.
So, the teams went on to travel in different parts of the city and in the interiors of the state to compel people to change this habit. “Going to the bushes to attend the call of nature at odd hours is a common feature across the state. That cannot be changed. So, we urged women and men and children to go out in a group. The strict warning was to not venture out alone. When in a group, two women can stand guard while one takes turn to squat. This way, the leopard is kept at bay,” Pagare said.
A recording of the team’s sensitisation workshop in eastern Maharashtra shows the members telling the tribals how to avoid leopard attacks. Standing outside a bunch of shacks, the tribals huddle to listen to them. “You don’t want the leopard to attack your children. So, you have to constantly keep a watch on your children. When they play, ensure that some adults are standing out. Take care of your toddlers, babies. They are particularly vulnerable. Women should go out to attend nature’s call only in a group. Remember, the leopard never wants to attack a human being,” the team is seen hammering them with messages.
IN TIMES OF LEOPARD ATTACKS
Imagine a leopard attack at a place. There is chaos and mayhem everywhere. A crowd swells in no time to take a look at the wild creature. “The crowd is our worst enemy when a leopard strays in a human settlement.”
Soon after the team receives a distress call, it leaves for the location with all its equipment and medical kit. “The priority is to identify the location of the leopard, hit it with a dart and rescue it within half an hour after injecting the dart. Otherwise, there is risk to the leopard’s life. Every minute, every second is precious. At such times, there is nothing more detrimental than swelling crowds and peeping cameras,” he said.
Part of this team’s training programme targets the Maharashtra Police too. “We train them that at such times, crowd management should be their first priority. Also, they are not supposed to shoot the animal. They are only supposed to facilitate the rescue team’s operation,” Pagare said.
But doesn’t the stress take its toll on the team? After all, there are no fixed timings. The normal work day involves patrolling and travelling for almost 18 hours every day. “Oh, no. The jungle is our respite. These animals, they are the most loving and trusting creatures you can meet. Their love drives us towards this job. We understand the animals by their eyes and their body language now. During one rescue operation, a leopard had hurt its leg. We nursed him to health and then left him again in the forest. Even today, when he sees us, he pauses and wags his tail. Leopards never wag their tails. This is his way of expressing his gratitude towards us,” Pagare said, recalling touching incidents of close encounters with the wild creatures.
Narrating another incident, he said that the team was greatly involved in taking care of the lions brought from other parts of the country to SGNP. “When Shobha, the lioness, got pregnant, we were ecstatic. I took great care of her throughout her pregnancy. After she delivered, she did not allow anyone close to her den. She used to keep it very spic and span. Within a week, one day, when I was sitting around the area, she brought her cubs and placed them near my feet. She then went inside. That incident brought tears to my eyes. Such trusting creatures they are,” he said.
The team said it only looked at the perks of the job. “Which job is not stressful today? But look at the positive side. We get to live in the forest. We breathe the most beautiful, fresh air. Our children never fall ill due to this good environment. People pay crores to stay close to SGNP. We stay inside it. Aren’t we millionaires then?” Pagare smiled before taking off for another jungle round.