Sudden rise in leopard attacks in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony in 2017: What’s the reason?
What’s it like to be scared to step out of your house? HT visits tribal hamlets in Aarey, where there have been a spate of attacks, to understand what is happening and why
As the sun sets, an eerie silence descends on the tribal hamlets around Film City and Aarey Colony, Goregaon (east), located in close proximity to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP).
The kuccha roads of these adivasi settlements are deserted, the doors are locked, and the windows shut tightly. Every night, the silence is broken only by the growl of the predator making its way through these villages in search of food.
Without basic facilities such as electricity and toilets, the inhabitants of these villages, mostly members of the Warli tribe, don’t step outside, making do with buckets and lanterns as the predators’ shadow looms close outside their homes.
For over eight months now, as they wait anxiously for the first light of dawn, their only protection has been their stray dogs. The strays they have adopted guard their homes, warn them, and sometimes even take on the leopards.
These settlements have shared space with the big cats forever, so what lies behind the sudden spurt in leopard attacks? This year, so far, there have been seven attacks and one death, the highest in the past 15 years, since 2002.
HT visited Chafacha Pada, Vanicha Pada, Bangurla, Khambacha Pada, Kelti Pada, and other tribal hamlets - each of them has an average of 500 residents - to try and understand what is happening and how their inhabitants are coping.
Tribal leader Prakash Bhoir from Kelti Pada believes that the rise in attacks is the direct result of a drastic decline of the leopards’ habitat. “We have been living alongside these animals for decades, we consider them as gods. They never harmed us in the past, but suddenly we are facing a life-threatening crisis,” Bhoir said. “In the past year, there has been a big rise in encroachments and developmental activities, and infrastructure projects are eating into the forest area. All this has squeezed the leopards’ hunting area and pushed them closer to our villages, where there is access to food such as dogs, pigs, and poultry.”
Aarey Milk Colony is spread across 3,166 acres, of which around 230 acres were handed over to central government bodies such as the National Dairy Development Board, Central Poultry Farm, and Reserve Bank of India in the 1950s and 60s. Over the next few decades, another 810 acres were given to state government bodies such as the Mumbai Veterinary College, State Reserve Police Force, Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (Mhada), Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and Film City, the most recent being 90 acres for the state police’s Force One special security agency. There are also 36 cattle farms spread over another 400 acres.
Recently, the Maharashtra government started building stabling lines and a car shed for the ongoing Metro 3 project (it will connect Colaba, Bandra and SEEPZ and end on Jogeshwari Vikhroli Link Road with Aarey as the last stop) in the area, which has eaten up another 81.5 acres.
A total of 27 tribal settlements with 7,000 residents are scattered across around 1,000 acres of the green space. “As of today, Aarey has over 15,000 illegal residents living under tin sheds spread across 600 acres,” said Bhoir.
On September 30, two women (see case studies) from Chafacha Pada were attacked by two leopards late evening on the outskirts of the village. Stray dogs attacked the leopards, and both women escaped with minor injuries. Nagesh Jadhav, 46, a resident of Chafacha Pada and relative of one of the victims, said his family and other villagers’ lives are under constant threat from the big cats. “Despite repeatedly reminding Aarey authorities, the forest department and local leaders, neither women attacked has got compensation for their injuries,” he said. “They have also made no arrangements for basic amenities such as toilets and street lights, nor do they send garbage collection vehicles to the village to help keep the animals away.”
Just two months earlier, on July 22, a two-year-old boy, Vihaan Nilesh Garuda, whose father is an SGNP employee, was attacked and killed near Maroshipada, a hamlet near Film City. After this incident, the forest department cordoned off a five-km radius for almost two months until the leopard was caught.
The elders in the hamlets now ensure that children move around in groups of six or more while going to school. “The idea is to scare the leopards by making more noise. Also, if there are only a few of us, the animal can easily attack. We have managed to scare them away so far,” said Rohan Lolhe, 15.
Going by a 2015 survey conducted by SGNP, there are 35 leopards living in and around the national park, and Aarey is one of their dominant habitats. Earlier this month, the forest department trapped a leopard at Film City, which they claim was responsible for all attacks since March this year. The tribals, however, disagree. They contend that there are at least three to four leopards that live close to each hamlet. “We used to sleep outside our homes earlier and the leopards would pass by without harming us. But now there is fear, in both our minds, and it will only lead to more attacks if we don’t get help from the government,” said Chandu Jadhav, a resident of Vanicha Pada.
Villagers allege that noise from the daily artillery training by various security agencies such as Force One and State Reserve Police Force, have frightened the predators and prompted them to move closer to the hamlets. “Every afternoon, from 3.30pm to 8pm and sometimes till late night, the sound of guns being fired or grenade-testing noise is heard. It is difficult for us to bear the noise. I pity the leopards, it must be unbearable for them,” said Suresh Wagat, a resident of Khambacha Pada.
However, a senior officer from Maharashtra police told HT that training practices by the security agencies are routine and does not have any negative impact on the animals there. “The state has handed over the land for security training, and it is being carried out for national security. There has been no harm to the animals, and there is enough space within SGNP and other parts of Aarey for leopards to move about,” the officer said, on condition of anonymity. “In fact, the training programme helps locals feel safer from any potential danger,” he claimed.
The forest department blames Aarey authorities for not providing civic amenities to these hamlets, which has led to increased conflict situations. Forest officers said they have sent at least five letters to Aarey officials. “We are in the process of drafting a letter to the heads of state at Mantralaya to bring this issue to their notice. The Warli community is not being provided even basic amenities to sustain and protect themselves. Issues such as open defecation, lack of streetlights and proper roads need to be resolved immediately,” said Sunil Limaye, chief conservator of forest, Thane.
Aarey authorities, in turn, said they are facing a severe fund shortage. “The state government was supposed to release funds to us at the beginning of this year, but it has not come yet. So work such as installation of streetlights, road development and better facilities at Aarey hospital are on hold,” said Nathu Rathod, chief executive officer, Aarey.
Also, a central government committee formed in 2016 for development of Aarey’s eco-sensitive zone, headed by the BMC chief and Thane’s deputy conservator of forest, needs to discuss the funds required for the development of adivasi settlements, Rathod said. “Once they communicate the guidelines, we will act upon them.”
However, Jitendra Ramgaokar, deputy conservator of forest, Thane, said: “The committee does not take calls regarding development for Aarey’s original inhabitants. Time and again, the Aarey CEO has been asked to clear encroachments and provide facilities, but nothing has been done.” Even basic medical facilities are not available to citizens, and they have to travel all the way to Jogeshwari for treatment, he added.
Responding to the lack of medical facilities in Aarey in case of emergencies, Rathod said: “As of now, our hospital only treats Aarey employees. Once funds are sanctioned, we will develop the hospital too.”
“As far as compensation is concerned, we will ensure that all medical facilities are provided to victims free of cost when there are attacks,” Limaye said, adding that he would look into the case of the two women attacked recently and reimburse their medical expenses, if they have not received it. The family of the two-year-old child who was killed in July has received compensation of Rs 8 lakh, he said.
Rathod promises that electricity will come to the hamlets soon. “We are working with a major power distributor to light up tribal homes. All hamlets should get power by March 2018,” he said.
Until then, villagers will have to make do. “The forest department has provided emergency lights that blink through the night to ward off leopards in hamlets where attacks are common,” Ramgaokar said.
Only a few houses have got these emergency lights, countered Bhoir. “The lack of support shows that authorities want us to shift to slum rehabilitation authority (SRA) buildings and free these areas for more infrastructure development. Our future generations might choose that option, but we will continue to live here. This has been our home for over 100 years, much before skyscrapers came up around this forest,” he said.
Experts said the issue is transforming from an ecological problem to a political one. “The leopards and the Warlis are the original inhabitants of Aarey. There will be a solution only once the government acknowledges this and pays heed to their needs,” said wildlife biologist Vidya Athreya.
CASE FILES: SPOT OF BOTHER
Two women, two leopards, and their two faithful dogs
Around 8.30pm on Dussehra (September 30), Bayaji Dadu Bendre, 45, a resident of Chafacha Pada in Aarey, faced her worst fear after she was forced to step out of her house. She needed to use the bathroom, so she decided to walk to the farm closest to her house. “As I was walking, I heard something move behind me. First, I thought it was a snake, but when I heard the sudden ruffling of crops, I ran towards my house.” An adult leopard gave chase and brought her down, clawing the left side of her stomach and her right thigh. “I felt like I was going to die and began losing consciousness. That’s when my dog sprung from our verandah and leapt at the leopard. I screamed and rushed down the lane of houses shouting for help.”
Asha Gavit, 50, was sitting outside her house when she heard Bendre’s shouts. She jumped out of her chair and asked her to take shelter in her house. Behind Bendre, she could see a dog fighting a large animal, and the duo was moving closer to her house. As she inched closer and stared in the faint light, she spotted another big cat heading towards her. “The second leopard was stronger and walked towards my house. By this time, the dog could not hold off the first one, and both leopards jumped to attack me. My saree was ripped to shreds, and I was trying to pull myself into the house when, thankfully, another dog came running. Both dogs attacked the leopards, forcing them to retreat and run back into the forest,” she said. “The dogs were badly wounded.”
Gavit, who had injuries on her arm, and Bendre were rushed to the BMC’s Balasaheb Thackeray Trauma Centre in Jogeshwari (east), where they were treated and discharged two days later.
“An emergency light has been fitted outside my house, but every night even if there’s the slightest movement outside and my dog barks, fear grips my heart. I don’t know how I will get over this,” said Bendre.
SRPF didn’t open gates when we were attacked, says man
Just six days after two leopards attacked two women, on October 6, Nitin Dhiru Kharva, 32, his wife Surekha and his one-and-a-half-year-old son were on their way to a dispensary in Goregaon to buy medicines. Around 7.30pm, as they made their way through the unpaved road in Chafacha Pada to get to the main road, they came face to face with a leopard and her cub. “I froze. The cub started coming closer to us and my only thought was to protect my family. I told them to turn and run,” he said. “The State Reserve Police Force (SRPF) quarters was just round the corner, so I told my wife and child to run there. I threw a stone towards the mother leopard, distracting the cub, and started running too.”
To his shock, the SRPF did not open the gates for his family. “The female leopard leapt and dug her nails into my thigh, but I managed to pull away. She was inches away, growling, aggressive and ready to attack. My heart was beating very hard, I knew that once she was done with me, it would be my child. Just as she was about to leap again, the sound of a jeep broke the silence. As soon as the headlights fell on us, the leopard and her cub ran away,” said a frightened Kharva as he narrated the story. “The SRPF team just grinned at us but never said why they didn’t let us enter. We have stopped using that road now and only leave the village with three or four others.”
She threw herself on a leopard to save her child
On March 20, Pramila Rinjad from Chafacha Pada stepped out around 9 in the night to relieve herself just outside her house, not realising that her three-year-old son Pranay had followed her out. As she went into the bushes, Pranay sat down a few feet away playing with his toy.
Suddenly, from the dense forest behind her house, a leopard leaped out. “I felt something move behind me but I was not sure what it was until I heard my son’s loud screams,” she said. The leopard had dug its claws into the child’s thigh, and was pulling him away with its teeth on his back. “I didn’t wait to think, I just threw myself on the leopard and started screaming and shouting for help,” she said. As villagers came running, the leopard panicked and ran away. “We took Pranay to the Jogeshwari trauma centre where he was kept under observation for two days and received four stitches. He might not remember the incident in detail, but it has left a scar that he will never forget,” she said with a sigh. “I don’t let my son out of my sight at all now.”
Rinjad’s neighbours said the leopard returned to the spot about an hour after the incident with her cub. “It may have thought that it had killed the child and had returned with her cub to feed it,” one of the neighbours said.
Three close shaves, but she’s escaped attack
Saiti Pardhi, 40, a resident of Bangurla Pada near Film City, has been stalked by what she believes to be the same leopard thrice since May, but luckily, she has not been attacked. “There is an adult leopard that roams this area. Thrice when I was walking through the forest to the market near Film City, the animal came out of the woods. It came at a distance of less than 10 feet, and growled and bared its teeth. It was extremely scary, but I made a kind of loud growling sound, and it didn’t attack. This happened three times, but it can attack any time,” she said. Pardhi has stopped going alone now, and steps out only when she has at least three villagers for company.