The Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in Borivali, flanked by the metropolis of Mumbai, is home to a healthy number of leopards. For his postgraduate research project, Nikit Surve, a student of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, studied the ecology of leopards in SGNP. The study covered roughly 140 sq km, including the Aarey Colony, and documented 35 leopards in and around the park. The results, based on leopard scat analysis, suggest that the SGNP leopards are dependent on both wild as well as domestic prey. Here, the leopards share urban space with human beings and they do so as long as their prey population, both domestic and wild, remain healthy, and their habitat protected. No attacks on humans were reported during the study period, that spanned over four months, despite leopard visitations in the surrounding areas.

In this interview, Surve talks about the leopards that thrive in the heart of densely populated Mumbai.

How did the project evolve and how was it executed?

This was a collaborative project with the WII and the Forest Department. I trained beat guards on conducting line transects and installing and operating camera traps. We would set up 10-15 cameras at a time with one beat guard responsible for every camera location. Lest the guards feel lonely, I would visit each location every two-three days. Believe me, there is a lot to learn from them, they shared every bit of information they had and accepted me as part of their group.

Leopards avoid human beings, but venture into human-dominated areas for prey. Why?

The leopard doesn’t avoid coming into areas inhabited by human beings, but avoids detection. Leopards have been living in close proximity with humans and they have adapted well to survive with them. They know exactly when is the right time to show up and do their job without being detected. So the answer is pretty simple: the leopard comes into human-dominated areas for ‘easy and abundant’ prey.

How did you decide the camera trap locations?

In the first two months, we walked one or two forest beats daily to find indirect evidence such as scat, pugmarks and scrapes. Importantly, local people knew the paths leopards used, and the place they drank water from. Once we knew the trails, we selected locations from where cameras would not be easily stolen.

What kind of cooperation did you receive from the local people?

Local people’s support was absolutely necessary. They would often refer to the animals as “our leopards”. We named the leopards after discussion with the locals. A female leopard was captured on a new moon night next to the house of an elderly woman. On seeing the image, she told me that the tribal people believed one should not venture out on amavas (new moon) as leopards roamed around then. We named the leopard ‘Chandni’ (moonlight).

How do you indentify each leopard and arrive at the figure of 35?

We used Mark Capture Recapture method (Spatially Explicit Capture Recapture model). We set two cameras facing each other, but at a slight angle. This got us both flank images of the leopard without the cameras triggering at the same time.

Every leopard has a unique rosette pattern, the left flank is different from the right. We got 88 images, which were transformed into a statistical format and fed into a software, and that gave us the number 35 with a standard error of 0.5.

What were the valuable lessons learned from this project?

The leopard is a master of camouflage. I never saw a leopard when I went looking for it, but they must have seen me on many occasions. Once while walking above Kanheri caves we spotted a leopard at quite a distance, a beautiful silhouette against the backdrop of the setting sun. I can never forget that sighting.

One of my field assistants worked in the forest department nursery. Every day, he would arrive at 5 am and leave around 8 pm. I asked him why he worked so hard, and he said, “I love the jungle. I am so happy to have this opportunity, otherwise I would have remained at the nursery.” Though he was married with two children, the meagre earnings did not worry him. He worked with great passion and dedication and he will always inspire me.

What is the story behind your favourite image?

During the project “Mumbaikars for SGNP” in 2012, I was responsible for a camera trap. I hoped to capture an iconic image of a leopard with the sprawling city as the backdrop. When the time came to do my own project, I selected that location as I knew that path was used by a leopard. It was summer, a fire had created an opening in the grass. After two to three days, I got that dream image, and I was thrilled. This image of a big muscular male that we named “Big Daddy”, has become the iconic image for ‘Leopards of Mumbai’.

How was your report received?

Very positively. Earlier, leopards were often described as ‘dangerous,’ ‘man-eater,’ ‘dog slayer’, and so on in news reports. The reports would often be accompanied by pictures of a snarling animal. But after this report, a number of positive articles with beautiful pictures of leopards were published. This positive publicity is good for conservation.

How will this study help improve conservation at SGNP?

This study serves as the baseline data on the leopard and prey population in SGNP and will help in further monitoring of leopard movement inside and outside the park. It also helped enhance the skill of the forest staff.

What are your plans?

Studying human-wildlife interactions and working towards resolving the negative ones. We need to learn to share space with wildlife, as they are already doing their bit.

(Parikshit Suryavanshi is a researcher, translator and writer based in Aurangabad)