As a nature enthusiast, Marol resident Rajesh Sanap frequently visited the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) to explore its biodiversity.
But his passion for wildlife research got a shot in the arm only in 2011, when he joined the ‘Mumbaikars for SGNP and Leopards’ project to mitigate the man-animal conflict and sensitise people on such conflict situations and also the leopard’s behaviour.
Along with other like-minded students, Sanap set up camera traps to track the movement of leopards, and reached out to people across the tribal hamlets in Aarey colony, Goregaon East.
“The project gave me a platform to interact with wildlife experts and learn about leopards and ways to help people living around SGNP. Unhindered access to the park also gave me a chance to explore other animal species,” said Sanap, who is pursuing a Masters in Environment Science.
Many students are using their people skills to help bridge the trust deficit between the forest department and people living in areas where leopards are sighted frequently.
For instance, Mulund resident Pawan Sharma, 22, frequently accompanies forest officials patrolling areas where leopards roam. The founder of Resqink Association for Wildlife Welfare, Sharma is among a growing tribe of youngsters who are driven to rescuing wild animals from buildings and homes.
“People usually don’t get along with forest officials and in such conflict situations, volunteers help in placating crowds. We also attend to distress calls and alert forest officials in case they are not accessible,” said Sharma.
Documentation has been a key part of the project.
Professional researchers like Sunetro Ghosal have played a big role in documenting important incidents of man-animal conflict and awareness campaigns too.
Ghosal earlier worked in Akole, Pune district, studying the behavioural changes in people after leopards strayed into their farms and homes.
“In the past, several man-animal conflicts and resulting deaths went undocumented. We have not only archived such incidents but also studied how people living around leopards have adapted to their existence,” said Ghosal.
Despite the official end of ‘Mumbaikars for SGNP and Leopards’ in March this year, Ghosal, Sharma and others continue to spread awareness about leopards.
“The active participation of people from conflict areas shows that we have managed to connect with them,” said Vidya Athreya, wildlife biologist, Centre for Wildlife Studies.