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Friday, Oct 18, 2019

Roads deserted, doors closed: A Mumbai colony that sees a spate of leopard attacks

Tribal helmets in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony blame the attacks on a decline of the leopards’ habitat due to rise in encroachments and developmental activities.

mumbai Updated: Oct 22, 2017 23:16 IST
Badri Chatterjee
Badri Chatterjee
Hindustan Times, Mumbai
A scene of the leopard attacks recreated with a stuffed leopard.
A scene of the leopard attacks recreated with a stuffed leopard.(Satish Bate/HT Photo)

Every evening, an eerie silence descends on the tribal hamlets of Aarey Colony and Film City in Goregaon (east), close to Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP). The kutcha roads are deserted, doors locked, and windows shut tight.

Seven attacks by leopards and one death this year, the highest since 2002, have left residents of the area, mostly the Warli tribe, so helpless that they depend on adopted stray dogs to guard their homes, warn them, and sometimes, even take on the leopards.

On July 22, a two-year-old Vihaan Nilesh Garuda, whose father is an SGNP employee, was killed near Maroshipada, a hamlet near Film City.

On September 30, two women from Chafacha Pada were attacked by two leopards late in the evening on the outskirts of the village. Stray dogs attacked the leopards, and both women escaped with minor injuries.

HT visited Chafacha Pada, Vanicha Pada, Bangurla, Khambacha Pada, Kelti Pada, and other hamlets to grasp the situation.

“We have been living alongside these animals for decades. They never harmed us in the past but suddenly we are facing a life-threatening crisis,” says tribal leader Prakash Bhoir from Kelti Pada, blaming the attacks on a decline of the leopards’ habitat due to rise in encroachments and developmental activities.

Children in the forest travel to school. They have been instructed to walk only in groups of six.
Children in the forest travel to school. They have been instructed to walk only in groups of six. ( Satish Bate/HT Photo )

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 and RBI in the 1950s and 60s.

Over the next few decades, another 900 acres were given to state bodies such as the State Reserve Police Force, Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (Mhada), Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and Film City.

The Metro 3 operations has eaten up another 81 acres. There are also 36 cattle farms spread over another 400 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,” says Bhoir.

Leopard attacks in Aarey this year
  • September 30: Two women are attacked by two leopards at Chafacha Pada in Aarey, but escape with injuries after their dogs attack the leopards.
  • July 28: Aniket Dileep Page, 13, is attacked near Aarey pump house in the afternoon as he bends to scratch his leg and his friends walk ahead. He escapes as his friends shout and startle the animal.
  • July 22: Two-year-old Vihaan Nilesh Garuda, whose father is an SGNP staffer, is attacked and killed near Maroshipada, a hamlet near Film City.
  • May 29: A four-year-old boy from Royal Palms, Goregaon, is attacked while walking a few paces behind his father. The animal drags him a few feet, but his father creates a ruckus and passers-by come running, which scares the leopard away.
  • May 15: Ritesh Valvi, 3, escapes with injures on his chest and throat in Khadak Pada, Aarey Colony, after villagers scare the leopard away.
  • March 20: Pranay Rinjad, 3, is saved by his mother after leopard pounces on him and tries to drag him away in Chafacha Pada, Aarey.

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 the attacks since March this year. The tribals, however, disagree, saying that there are at least 3-4 leopards close to each hamlet.

Nagesh Jadhav, 46, a resident of Chafacha Pada and relative of one of the injured women, say there are no street lights, toilets or other public amenities, increasing the threat.

The forest department and Aarey authorities were engaged in a blame-game over the lack of civic amenities. Sunil Limaye, chief conservator of forest, Thane, said they had sent five letters to the Aarey officials, and were planning to inform the Mantralaya about the same. “Issues such as open defecation, lack of streetlights ... need to be resolved immediately,” he said.

Aarey CEO Nathu Rathod said cited a fund shortage. He also said that a 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 plan allocation of funds.

However, Jitendra Ramgaokar, deputy conservator of forests, Thane, said the committee does not decide development for Aarey’s original inhabitants.

“The forest department has provided emergency lights that blink through the night to ward off leopards in hamlets ...” Ramgaokar said. However, Bhoir countered that only a few houses have got these emergency lights.

Why it matters
  • Villagers living in these hamlets are residents of the city and are as entitled to a safe life as anybody else.
  • SGNP and Aarey are the leopards’ original habitats. Pushing them out would endanger their lives as well the lives of humans
  • Aarey and SGNP are Mumbai’s protect citizens from severe effects of pollution
  • The forest is a catchment area for lakes that partly supply water to Mumbai
  • The dense tropical forest also regulates temperature, encourages precipitation and recharges ground water

Villagers also allege that noise from the daily artillery training by security agencies have frightened the animals.

However, a senior officer from Maharashtra police told HT that no animals are harmed in the training. “There is enough space within SGNP and other parts of Aarey for the leopards to move about,” he said.

Bhoir noted that the lack of support showed that authorities wanted them to shift to slums and free these areas for more infrastructure development.

“Our future generations might do that, but we will not. This has been our home for over 100 years.”

Wildlife biologist Vidya Athreya said the issue was turning political. “The leopards and the Warlis are the original inhabitants of Aarey. There will be a solution only when the government acknowledges this and pays heed to their needs.”

First Published: Oct 22, 2017 23:15 IST

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