Living free: 35 leopards roam Mumbai's forests

  • Badri Chatterjee, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Jun 30, 2015 22:02 IST

It’s a basket of good news: 35 wild leopards wander the forests of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and its periphery, they have enough prey to survive without struggle and their conflict with man has greatly come down.

A first-of-its-kind scientific count of leopards at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) has also revealed the population of the big cat has gone up from 21, found by a separate survey between 2011 and 2013.

This study was done by SGNP and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) between December 2014 and April 2015, and covered 140km of the park. The park was divided into three blocks – Yeoor (eastern SGNP), Nagla (western SGNP) and Tulsi Lake and parts of Aarey Milk Colony (the southern part of the park).

In any given 100sqkm, there are 21 leopards, the study found.

“I am quite surprised with the findings; the number is one of the highest in the country. With a high density of humans residing around the park, it’s a surprise these many leopards survive,” said Vikas Gupta, chief conservator of forests, SGNP.

Gupta said the study found the leopards have an abundant prey base, which includes dogs, chital deer, monkeys, langurs, wild pigs and barking deer. “The study’s findings will give forest officials a chance to manage the park better and mitigate leopard-human conflict,” Gupta said.

“We recorded 10 male, 16 female and nine leopards whose sex could not be determined. Four of them were seen in areas close to Powai, where we could not set up camera traps,” said Nikit Surve, a masters’ student from WII.

The cats were counted using camera traps. To avoid repetition, Surve and his team identified intricate markings – also called rosette patterns – that are unique to each leopard. The cats’ food habits were established by studying their scat.

Forty-three percent of the prey base constituted domestic animals, mainly dogs.

Why are leopards making domestic animals their prey? Biologist Dr Vidya Athreya from the Wildlife Conservation Society, said, leopards do not understand park boundaries. “There is a lot of wild prey inside the park, but these predators depend on both wild and domestic animals.”

The cats were counted using camera traps. (Photo: Nikit Surve, Wildlife Institue of India)

Surve said the leopards were more dependent on domestic animals as it is easier to hunt them. “This could be a reason for leopard sightings in SGNP’s periphery.”

The leopards are also roaming about the park freely, as the study captured images of the same leopard in two opposite sides of the park. Surve said male leopards were living without conflict. “It means they have enough food.”

Suresh Thorat, principal chief conservator of forests (western region) said, “It’s clear from the rise that man-animal conflicts have been controlled. The park is being managed better, but periodic monitoring should be done.”

How the study was done

1. The park was divided into three blocks –Yeoor block (Eastern SGNP), Nagla block (Western SGNP), Tulsi Lake and parts of the Aarey colony

2. How many of them
* Every leopard’s unique marking, also called rosette patterns, was recorded

* 15-odd camera traps in three separate locations were used

(Photo: Nikit Surve, Wildlife Institue of India)

3. What they eat

The study analysed leopards’ scat to find out the big cats’ food habits. “The scat contained a lot of undigested material, through this we figured out their diet was a mix of domestic and wild animals,” said Nikit Surve, a masters’ student at Wildlife Institute of India

4. Where they roam
* Cameras with heat and motion sensors detected movement to automatically take photos

* 20-30 ft was the range of the camera

* The camera is set according to the trail of the animal and is usually set at the knee level – strapped on trees, the ground or poles

* 20 megapixel is the quality of the camera

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