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Mumbai’s national park helps fragile leopard cubs grow into playful teens

Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) has nurtured two frail leopard cubs into healthy, active big cats.

mumbai Updated: Jun 18, 2018 09:40 IST
Tara and Suraj play inside their enclosure at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park.(Pramod Thakur/HT Photo)

Over the past six months, Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) has nurtured two frail leopard cubs into healthy, active big cats.

In November, farmers in a sugarcane field in Nandgaon village, Ahmednagar, found the cubs — a male and a female. After three failed attempts over four days by forest department officials to find their mother, their health began deteriorating. The month-old old cubs were then brought to SGNP’s leopard rescue centre in Borivli on December 19, where they were kept in isolation.

Six months later, Tara and Suraj who weighed 850gm and 1kg when they were first brought in, have grown to weigh a healthy 13kg and 14kg.

While Tara initially faced minor health complications in her new surroundings, the park’s veterinary team ensured the cubs grew into energetic, healthy, curious seven-month-olds.

Park officials said their success in rearing the abandoned cubs was a case study in how to take care of big cats in captivity, with the right food and environment.

“The entire exercise has been a great challenge for us, especially the first few months, as the cubs were acclimatising to their new environment,” said Dr Shailesh Pethe, the veterinary officer, at SGNP who led the efforts to raise the cubs, with his team, Sanjay Baraf, Mukesh More, Vaibhav Patil, Namdev Jirve, Pankaj Mohine, Dinesh Gupta, and Rajendra Bhoir.

The cubs were kept at SGNP’s veterinary hospital for the first three months, and then transferred to the rescue centre used to house injured animals. Till March, the SGNP team had to monitor the cubs round-the-clock because their immunity was low, and there were changes in temperature between Ahmednagar to Mumbai. “In most cases, leopard cubs without their mothers do not survive, but in this case, we have protected them as our own children. As they grew up, the cubs played violently, scratching and bruising the staff, but it did not deter their spirit in providing a relaxed atmosphere for the cubs to call home,” said Anwar Ahmed, the director and chief conservator of forest, SGNP.

“The staff fed them, cleaned their cages, ensured they got enough time in the play area, reported abnormal behaviour or simply set out time to spend with them — all the while making sure that the human access to their cage was limited,” said Baraf, the main caretaker of their cage. Dr Pethe said the team tried to reduce the human touch as much as possible to ensure their natural instincts are not lost.

“They were weak, fragile and underweight when they first came. We started them on a special diet and provided vitamin and calcium supplements,” Dr Pethe said. “They are now agile and robust large cats. We take immense pride in having raised these high-risk and sensitive cubs, and will continue to ensure their good health.”

The success in rearing the cubs has made the park officials proud, especially because similar attempts had failed in the past. In 2015, four cubs brought to SGNP in similar circumstances died of malnutrition and a lack of mother’s milk. The cubs’ good health is also a spot of good news, as in the past six months, there have been 214 leopard deaths across the country, of which 74 leopards were poached (19%) and 40% were killed in rail or road accidents, data from the Delhi-based NGO Wildlife Protection Society of India showed. Leopards are protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. But, a country-wide census done in 2015, which was also the first-ever leopard census in India, found there were only 12,000 to 14,000 leopards left in India. Uttarakhand, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh are the three states with maximum mortalities.

State forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar said, “As the state forest department, we believe protection of the environment and its various aspects that make up the ecological cycle, is as important as god’s work. We do not call ourselves a department but a family that works together in safeguarding the state’s biodiversity. An example of this is how these leopard cubs at SGNP have been reared into strong adults.”

First Published: Jun 18, 2018 01:07 IST