In May 1997, the Bombay High Court ordered the removal of 80,000 encroachments inside Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) at Borivli within 18 months. Fourteen years on, only 35,000 have been shifted out.
It’s no surprise that there are frequent reports of leopards straying out of their territory to look for easy prey — dogs, pigs and livestock — among the human settlements instead of making a kill within the 103 sq km park.
Last week, a spotted wild cat made a guest appearance at actor Hema Malini’s bungalow at Dindoshi. This was the seventh incident since January when a wild cat was found in the residential colonies nestled in Film City, Aarey Milk Colony, Dahisar, Borivli, Kandivli, Malad, Goregaon, Mulund and Bhandup.
Encroachments in the national park and along its periphery have degraded the habitat and reduced the leopards’ prey and food base, leading to a direct confrontation with humans. In the last 10 years, infrastructure development around the park, such as Ghodbunder Road in Thane and residential and commercial complexes abutting the park’s periphery, have further shrunk the wild habitat.
“Normally, an eco-sensitive zone such as a forest must have a 10-km-wide buffer zone around it. Since the national park is in the city, there should at least be a 1-km-wide buffer,” said Sunil Limaye, director and conservator of forests.
Limaye added that while a leopard takes 15 minutes to chase and kill a deer or sambhar, it takes only five minutes to kill a dog. A study conducted by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) on the man-leopard conflict revealed that dogs make up half of the leopards’ prey.
“Leopards are very adaptable, open to eating anything. The proliferation of dumping grounds and stray dogs has resulted in a shift in diet preferences,” said Krishna Tiwari, head, city forest project, BNHS.
SGNP is the largest urban protected forest in the world situated in a mega city like Mumbai with about three lakh people living within its periphery.
However, work on making more space for the animals by removing encroachments is getting back on track. On June 7, the state will file an affidavit on the resettlement plan in the high court. According to the plan, in the first phase, of the 11,658 eligible encroachers, 8,711 will be moved to 269 sq ft homes in Chandivli.
“As for the remaining 2,947 encroachments, while 2,393 flats ready at Chandivli, there is no water connection in 1,438 for want of compliance from the builder and the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA),” said Limaye. “By June-end, 900 more will be moved to the same area. The remaining 600 flats still have to be built.”
Forest officials said the SRA has yet to decide where to construct homes for the other set of 13,000 eligible encroachments including Adivasi settlements. “It could either be at Chandivli or Mankhurd. The illegal encroachers will have to leave,” said Limaye.
Apart from removing encroachments, environmentalists say the absence of a boundary wall is another reason for leopards strolling out of the park. So far, only 25 km of the wall is ready. However, forest officials said, the wall would be completed only after all encroachments are cleared.
But it’s not just the leopard that’s been spotted outside the park. Monkeys looking for food have been spotted in residential colonies at Mulund and Bhandup. “As Adivasis move into the forest for fruit trees, they leave almost nothing for the monkeys,” said Sunish Subramanian, founder, Plant and Animals Welfare Society. “There are groups of people who feed monkeys every day on the Thane side of the park, so citizens too are to blame for spoiling the monkeys.”