'Trapping leopards that stray into human habitat not the solution'

Report spells out the do's and don'ts of managing human-leopard conflict around Mumbai's Sanjay Gandhi National Park

By Akshay Deshmane
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

Photo by Santosh Saligram (Mumbaikars from SGNP report)A year-long study, initiated by the Maharashtra forest department in collaboration with non-profit Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS), has recommended varous measures to minimise the human-leopard conflict in and around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP). The study report titled Mumbaikars for Sanjay Gandhi National National Park (MfSGNP) was released on Thursday.

Findings of the research
  • A minimum of 21 adult leopards were identified using camera trap images in SGNP and the surrounding areas of Aarey Colony.

  • The leopard attacks peaked between 1997 and 1998 (24 attacks), with a much larger peak between 2002-2004 (84 attacks). The average number of leopard attacks on humans (including injuries and deaths) were seven per year between 1986 and 2010, but in the two years (1997-1998), the average was 12 attacks per year, and in the three years between 2002 and 2004, it was an average of 28 attacks per year. Between 2005 and 2010, the average number of leopard attacks on people was two per year. There is a general realisation among the forest department personnel that arbitrary capture of leopards and release worsen the problem and it appears to have drastically decreased since 2005.

  • Many of the attacks on humans could have been avoided if people were aware of the precautions they have to take to reduce conflicts.

  • The dog population, which provides, easy prey base to leopards, was estimated in and around Aarey Milk Colony through direct visual count. The area has high density of approximately 57 dogs per sq km. The study of herbivores suggests that overall, both cheetal and sambar, potential prey species of the leopard, seem to be most abundant in the central, southern and western parts of the park. Wild pigs, four-horned antelope and muntjac sign detections were very low overall, indicating their possible low density throughout the park. Occurrence of fire, followed by local collection of wood, grass and fruits seemed to be the most common forms of human disturbance, and, therefore, management may need to address these threats first. The report recommends that positive human presence (forest department personnel and wildlife viewers) be increased in the northern and eastern parts of the park.

  • A small study on leopard deaths due to road accidents since 1994 found that a total of 35 leopard accidents were hit by vehicles in the northern parts of the park. The report recommends that speed breakers be constructed in areas with high traffic and that that over-passes or under-bridges be built for the wild animals at a few points to aid movement opf wild animals between forest patches. Many of the accidents occurred near garbage dumps that were near hotels at the edges of the roads. These areas are likely to have stray dogs that attract leopards. The report recommends that the hotels at the edges of the highway be encouraged to dispose their wastes by composting.

  • The SGNP and surroundings is home to a variety of and often cosmopolitan communities. The report recommends the forest department needs to undertake structured outreach programmes in addition to biological monitoring, to manage interactions while accounting for diverse perceptions and their political impacts.

  • There are problems of jurisdiction which affect how the conflict is managed. Most of the leopard conflict occurs outside SGNP and is under the jurisdiction of Thane forest department. Thus, how the conflict is managed is not under the SGNP authorities.

An official statement said the project had set tasks like obtaining baseline data on number of leopards in SGNP, assessing prey population (both wild and domestic) and identifying patterns of conflict to derive logical explanations.  The other tasks included assessing stakeholders’ perception toward conflict and dissemination of the research findings among stakeholders.

“Attacks on people living in the vicinity of leopards can be minimised if certain precautions are taken. For instance, not venturing out in the dark alone, keeping surroundings clean, and thereby not attracting pigs and dogs on which the wild cats feed. It also calls for improving sanitation and waste handling practices,” says Vidya Athreya of CWS.

Adivasi communities who have been living in the forests for many centuries know how to co-exist with leopards, but newly settled people in hutments do not know it, says Krishna Tiwari, author of the Bombay Natural History Society’s City Forest Report.  “We have carried out several awareness programmes along with the forest department among such residents to make them aware about the dos and don’ts of living with leopards,” he said.
Sunetro Ghosal, one of the members of the MfSGNP, who studied several narratives about the national park among a cross-section of the nearly one million residents living on the periphery of the park, said such awareness programmes work. “When residents of Royal Palms in Aarey Colony wanted the forest department to trap the leopards, they were counselled about some basic measures that they can take not to encourage the cats to near them. So they have revamped their waste disposal practices and are more careful about moving about in the dark.”

Director of the SGNP, Sunil Limaye, says, the report has given important insights into the management of the conflict, especially with regard to the practice of trapping leopards, which was predominant method of tackling the problem in early 2000s. “There is a lot of political pressure to trap the leopards because human lives are involved and we need to be seen to be doing something. It is certainly not a solution to the problem, as this report has shown,” he says.

The researchers worked on the project between August 2011 and August 2012. Some small related works for the project such as DNA analysis of the leopards’ scat are still in progress and are likely to take a few months to conclude.

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