‘Man-animal conflict’: Is it time to drop the term?
Ten days ago, a leopard was rescued from a Thane shopping mall, nearly four km from the boundaries of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP). News reports mentioned the incident as a ‘ man-animal conflict’, but ecologists and forest officials want us to discard the term.
The SGNP has an area of 103 square kms and it is estimated the forest has between 35 and 40 leopards. The animals, which are the park’s apex predators, have done well, their numbers having grown from an estimated 20 a few decades ago.
The forest is under protection, but urbanisation has taken away what was once the buffer area around it. The Aarey Milk Colony, where leopard sightings are still common, was created in 1949 on 16 sq km of forest and scrubland in the southwest of SGNP. The Indian Institute of Technology – Bombay and the National Institute of Industrial Engineering (NITIE) campuses cover nearly three square kms in the park’s boundary. The buildings of Powai replaced mango orchards where leopards once roamed. Animals do not recognise man-created boundaries. So, while their numbers have grown, the animals have been squeezed into a smaller area.
According to nature conservationists, the density of leopard population in the SGNP is high compared to other forests and animals are exploring areas outside the forest.
“If you look at the Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary, which has a similar landscape as SGNP (and three times as large), with a surrounding rural area that does not have a dense human population, it has only five leopards,” said Vidya Athreya, ecologist.
According to the SGNP’s managers, there is adequate prey like deer and boar inside the park, but the high density of leopards means that some have formed territories that extend into the urban areas of Mumbai, Thane and Mira-Bhayandar, the cities that surround the park.
This territorial overlap has affected their food habits. A 2015 study on the diet on the leopards found that non-wild species of animals contributed to almost half of their diet, with stray dogs a favourite prey. After some slipshod rescue operations of leopards that entered residential areas, mostly during 2003-04, the forest department realised that the way they dealt with the incidents was contributing to the issue. This including the practice of relocating rescued leopards away from their home range and the rescue process itself.
Many of these problems have been addressed through projects like ‘Mumbaikars for SGNP’ where citizens become part of the scheme to manage such incidents. All this has made Mumbai an example of conservation and wildlife management. In keeping with the new empathetic view on wild animal incursions into habited areas, the local forest department is calling such incidents as ‘human-leopard interactions’.
Ecologists agree with the new nomenclature. “What is amazing is that there has hardly been any attacks on people. This is why we encourage people –even botanists – to not use the word conflict because it has a deeper meaning,” said Athreya.
There are other reasons why the movement of leopards outside the park should not be termed as a ‘conflict’.
A study by the Ecological Society of America said that SGNP’s leopards, by preying on stray dogs, reduce the number of dog bites incidents and the subsequent risk of rabies.
The study estimated that up to 90 human lives were being saved in a year, apart from savings in dog population control programme.
SGNP is part of a larger leopard habitat that stretches to the north, into Thane, Palghar, Pune, Nashik and Ahmednagar. Athreya says that building of underpasses and overpasses across busy traffic corridors like Ghodbunder Road – which cuts through SGNP in its northern section – will help leopards and other animals like sambhar to cross into other areas. The movement of tagged animals confirms that they cross the Vasai creek that separates Mumbai island from the northern areas. “Connecting it (SGNP) to the northern landscape is the best example of conservation that we can have.”