Maharashtra’s indigenous Warlis teach a lesson about peaceful coexistence with leopards

Locals report multiple safe encounters with the wild cats in the region;
A signage warning tourists and visitors at SGNP to stay off the roads after 6 pm. Photo: Gajanan Khergamker
A signage warning tourists and visitors at SGNP to stay off the roads after 6 pm. Photo: Gajanan Khergamker

The mention of leopard sighting may strike terror in the hearts of most people. But for the Warlis living near Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Maharashtra, the Waghoba or leopard deity is worshipped and revered, not feared. 

Mumbai, the only city in the world to have a national park within its limits, has housed leopards for a very long time. A record density of leopards found anywhere else in the world, according to a study done at SGNP, stands at 21 per 100 square km.

Leopards have lived in the SGNP for a very long time and while the city continues to grow northward, there’s been an abundance of stray dogs and pigs gravitating towards the garbage emanating, providing easy prey for leopards.

Humans and leopards have coexisted in Mumbai for years. A decade and half ago, in 2009, a leopard in Maharashtra in western India fell into a village well while chasing a dog. He was captured, named Ajoba (‘grandfather’ in Marathi), fitted with a global positioning system or GPS collar and released in a forest at Malshej Ghat, 80 kilometres from where he was found. 

Without harming a single human, over 78 days, Ajoba did a 120 km trek through the hilly Ratangarh area, the busy Mumbai-Agra Highway, the rail tracks near Kasara station, the Wada village near Dahanu and the Vasai industrial area before settling down in SGNP.

Around the SGNP, where people live in open houses without concrete walls, for example, the residents seem more willing than their high-rise counterparts to share space. The Warli tribals have, for years, been worshipping the leopards or Waghoba.

For Prashant Potle (33), living in Dampada with his parents, wife, two children and a nonagenarian grandmother, encountering a leopard in and around his neighbourhood in SGNP is commonplace. He runs a Chinese bhel (street snack) shop at the dam near the entrance of the national park and doubles up as a driver, ferrying visitors around the park when it’s his turn to make the trip.

“Recently, I saw a leopard at the Tumnipada Y Junction. They are mostly harmless and won’t attack an adult or someone standing. But children are usually at risk, like one seated and mistaken for a small animal,” he said.

Dahisar river that flows through the national park becomes a recreational centre during monsoons. The dam on the river is thronged by tribal locals who use it for fishing, washing clothes and even bathing their cattle, but only till 6 pm, after which the roads are free of humans, by law.

Incidentally, after the COVID-19 lockdowns and stoppages in tourism activities, rules preventing the entry of vehicles into the park were implemented. Visitors cannot take their vehicles inside the park. So, locals ferry cars that ply in turns to take the tourists around. 

“There are 26 such cars, all run on CNG by the residents only. They’re even trying to get electric vehicles,” said Prashant.

As one enters further into the park and into the settlements, it’s common to find tribal women trekking deep into the forest to collect firewood for cooking.

Mostly Warli tribals, the residents have had multiple run-ins with wild cats, with almost everyone having a personal story of an encounter when young.

For octogenarian Mangli Barap, fondly known in the area as Manglibai, big cats such as leopards co-exist peacefully with humans. The Navapada resident said, “I have had multiple encounters with the leopard and am yet to witness any untoward incident with anyone I know."

Another Warli neighbour Parvati Urade recalled the time when as a child she had an encounter with a big cat. “I was about ten years old and had gone into the forest to pluck some vegetables. There, I saw a big cat and froze. I stopped for a while and it went about its own way,” she said.

Warlis living in SGNP revere big cats rather than fear them. That the forest belongs to the predator is a given and the loss of poultry, dogs and other pets is perceived as a lapse on the part of the Warli tribe. 

“In the evenings, after six pm, children are not allowed to venture out. Even pet dogs, goats and poultry are locked away indoors as it’s time for Waghoba to come,” said Parvati.

The Warli children, too, keep away from the streets of the village following dusk for fear of being picked up by the wild cat, and are nonchalant about the threat.

Shrines of Waghoba exist deep inside the SGNP as locals offer sacrifices and pray for protection. Locals carve out or paint images of tigers or leopards on stone or wood and decorate them with flower garlands and vermilion paint too. Wild cats regularly frequent bodies of water like ponds where they prey on the numerous spotted deer present.

Co-existing with nature is a natural way of life for indigenous people across the world. While the Warlis revere the wagh (leopard or tiger), for the rest of Mumbai’s well-heeled citizens, it’s a wild cat to be feared.

Ironically, the gentle-as-ever Ajoba who could have easily killed any human just with his sheer weight — 63 kilos — but didn’t. Instead, he lost his life to human error and in a road accident while trying to cross National Highway No 8 on the outskirts of Mumbai. 

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