This article is condensed from ‘Cities, Towns, and the Places of Nature’ (A. Rademacher, K. Sivaramakrishnan ed., Hong Kong University Press, In Press). The study in question was conducted by Frédéric Landy, Professor of Geography, University Paris Ouest-Nanterre, France, in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SNGP) in Mumbai, and documents the dangerous and sometimes deadly presence of leopards in and around the park. It also focuses on the fact that leopards in Mumbai are not only a matter of human-nonhuman conflict; these confrontations reveal conflicts of other kinds between human stakeholders.
National parks located in megacities in the global south are being studied by the UNPEC project (2012-16), funded by the French National Agency of Research. The project focuses on specific national parks in the cities of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Nairobi (Kenya) and Mumbai (India) in order to better understand the challenges faced by such forests set in urban agglomerations.
In the global North, it is commonly said that far from being frontal adversaries, cities depend on nature for various ecosystem services, while reciprocally nature can benefit from cities that may promote environmental education, financially support conservation programmes, etc.
In emerging economies like India, where social, cultural and political gaps are huge between the various groups constituting urban society, national parks are threatened by the conflicting interests of the various stakeholders. The Maasai herders of Kenya would like to have their cattle graze in the Nairobi National Park during the dry season, and the Adivasis living within the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in Mumbai, would like to have access to some forest resources, while many middle class people want to visit the park in their cars or trek in the core area: all this is contrary to what is imposed by strict conservation policies.
This specific study was conducted in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai, a megacity with the highest human population density in the world. The leopards of the park have been a subject of contention for several decades, mainly due to the man-animal conflict that still exists.
Area of study
The SNGP is one of the largest urban protected areas in the world, beleaguered by a sprawling urban agglomeration of 20 million inhabitants. It spans 104 sq km, 30 times larger than Central Park (New York) and has the highest density of leopards in the world, with at least 21 individuals inhabiting the forested hills of the park as well as the surrounding suburbs of the Aarey Milk Colony. The protection of the park, partly fenced, is reinforced by rather steep slopes that make urbanization difficult. Its hills are covered by dense, moist deciduous, forests and is home to other species like spotted deer, wild boar, 250 species of birds and 150 species of butterflies. The SNGP has always been independently managed by the Forest Department, remaining separate from urban authorities and populations. Until recently, the park remained introverted, with no institutional relationships with the city – while reciprocally the urban authorities considered the park as the domain of the Forest Department and hardly showed interest in it.
In the 1990s, problems arose as more than 500,000 slum dwellers who had encroached onto the park-land were evicted after a long judiciary process. Some were accommodated elsewhere, but more than 150,000 people remain in the inner fringes of the park. Additionally, 8,000-9,000 “tribals” or Adivasis also live here, trapped by the park expansion. The turn of the millennium brought to the fore another issue: leopard attacks. June 2004 was the worst month recording 9 deaths. The reason was that a large number of trapped leopards were suddenly released following general elections (MfSGNP, 2012). For long, the Forest Department continued to relocate many animals (15 in 2003), sometimes for political reasons more than because of real attacks. This frenzy of captures/releases cooled down after 2004 and the situation became more peaceful (7 deaths between 2007 and 2013, none later); all the more so, since “awareness campaigns” were conducted in order to teach “good practices” and behaviours to the local population.
Earlier, deaths occurred within the park itself as leopards attacked encroaching slums. Today attacks are concentrated in the southern regions of the park, outside its boundaries, especially in Aarey Colony – a large grassland area comprising of woods, slums and scattered tribal hamlets. Far from being limited to rural, grassy or forested lands, wild animals, be they bears and foxes in cold countries, or leopards in India, appear to be endowed with a very high capacity of adaptation to anthropogenic milieus. A city is not necessarily a hostile environment for them, since it may provide easy food and, hence, support high animal densities. This is the case in Mumbai. Contrary to the general opinion, leopards roaming in the suburbs outside the park are not pushed out in a desperate quest for prey. They are attracted by easy and abundant dogs, pigs and rodents that proliferate near the numerous dumping areas.
The human-human conflict:
The man-leopard conflict in Mumbai reveals the real conflict that exists between different sections of Mumbaikars. These animals are mere scapegoats masking the diversity of the social status of various stakeholders, the differences in their environmental perceptions and the conflicts that arise as a result.
In Mumbai, advocates and adversaries of leopards may be distinguished by their differing conceptions of the relationships between nature and city. For the advocates of leopards- the Adivasis- the forest is not only an environment but a resource. About 2000 households living within the SGNP, worship Waghoba/Waghdevi, the tiger-god, which they believe is the elder brother of the leopard. They consider biodiversity as a whole, without trying to separate species according to modern science. Their love of nature is not based on scientific ecology, but on a holistic perception. Hence they say they cannot conceive of a forest without leopards. Another frequently cited argument is of how the leopards help preserve the forest. “Leopards are good because they frighten timber cutters and other outsiders. If leopards disappear, the forest shall be cut, slums shall come, then high buildings”, an old man said in Aarey Colony.
A second group, socially very different, may be called the leopard lovers. They are middle class environmentalists, generally without scientific knowledge but dedicated to the protection of the SGNP. Many of them have the same perception as Adivasis: “Nature is a gift of God, it’s a whole: you must take the leopards too”.
As for the adversaries of leopards, the slum dwellers are the main victims of leopards but their voice is little heard in Mumbai. They are most vulnerable to leopard attacks, offered little or no protection and as a result are afraid of the park. On the other side of the social spectrum is a group who despises slum dwellers but is in accordance with them for their hate of leopards: middle-class residents living near the park. Thanks to their education and their social capital, they have better access to politicians and the media. These “tax payers” want to enjoy their life in a green residence: they are attracted to man-made, “green areas” such as gardens and municipal parks, often fight for a better “environment” (garbage management), but they clearly are against the leopards of SNGP.
The leopard masks the very human relations of power. Different graduated levels of citizenships have been highlighted in and around the SGNP, corresponding to unequal rights to the city.
Leopards and spatial conflicts:
The study highlighted the various spatial conflicts that exist around the SNGP:
- As the urban sprawl grows so does conflict between urban wildlife and city dwellers.
- Legally, certain regions of the national park are not registered and hence don’t come under protective laws. As a result, opposing parties sometimes have valid but contradicting documents to prove their rights.
- The Forest Rights Act (2006) gives Adivasis the right to demand up to 4 hectares in any rural protected area. Though valid only in few areas of the park, this caused a spurt of encroachments along the periphery of SGNP.
- The SGNP spans two municipal territories: Mumbai Corporation and Thane Corporation; it is located in two districts: Mumbai Surburban and Thane; the Aarey Colony land belongs to the Dairy Development Department; the Forest Department is the overarching institution for the management of the SGNP, but the Adivasis living there may refer to the Tribal Development Department. Such institutional overlapping complicates the leopard issue!
Leopards are good cartographers:
The leopard attacks have forced people to realize that a separation between park and city, between nature and culture, is but an illusion and not a very successful model for co-existence of wildlife and city dwellers. Leopards can jump above both the physical wall bordering the park and the ideological wall that tries to separate the world of humans and the world of wilderness. They are good cartographers: while there is no buffer zone around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, the territories of the leopards draw the boundaries of an area, overlapping park and suburbs, that should be managed with specific rules in order to accommodate both humans and wild carnivores. More generally, the leopards’ routes could help define a “green grid”, the ecological corridors that are nowadays advocated in most of the megacities and developed countries for preservation of biodiversity and provision of ecosystem services.
Leopards are efficient go-betweens:
Leopard attacks in previous years forced the city and the park to liaise. They pushed the various stakeholders to create ad hoc platforms bringing together at the neighbourhood level local residents, forest officials, policemen or school masters; and at a higher level, through the media, institutions that rarely used to communicate. An association made of forest lovers, Mumbaikars for Sanjay Gandhi National Park (MfSGNP), acted as a broker between the park managers and the city, and launched awareness campaigns to teach local people how to behave around leopards. Another group, with Krishna Tiwari (ex-Bombay Natural History Society), had a similar role, especially among the Adivasis living in the park or in the neighbouring Aarey Milk Colony.
The Leonine Metropolis:
These leopards help us appraise the metropolitan city of the 21st century and provide incentives to adapt the existing model to new challenges and imaginations. In India nature and culture are isolated and this impedes city dwellers from using the protected areas for improving their status, visibility and welfare. In Mumbai itself, urban dwellers could learn how to behave around leopards from Adivasis.
Leopards seen outside of park limits don’t always have to be ‘rescued’. Modern approaches of strictly demarcating spaces and providing them differing governance and uses is not recognised by the leopards. If leopards transgress boundaries and jurisdiction, the strategy commonly followed is to trap the animals and to replace them in their supposed natural territories. This practice can be compared, all other things being equal, with the slum policy: when people encroach a land and establish a slum, the slum is usually destroyed and people displaced. Slum dwellers and leopards are displaced because they are not at a “proper place”. One should question what is “proper”, since clearly the current urban model does not work without severe crises. The planned, modern city refuses “invasive species”, be they human or nonhuman. It is time to invent new models, trying to reconcile the “indigenous” and the “alien”, for the sake of a city for all.
Many lessons from the Nairobi national park in Kenya can be applied in Mumbai. The existing urban model needs to be modified and city dwellers, regardless of social standing, must have access to amenities like basic shelter and must also engage in sustainable practices like garbage disposal.
Spatial policies also need to be changed. Of course, in some cases leopards have to be removed, but generally measures should be taken for their co-existence with the rest of the urban setting.
The Forest Department must be proactive in responding to conflict situations. Initiatives should be taken to establish cooperation between the various stakeholders that live around the park. Adivasis could be much more employed in park management and residents should be encouraged to follow a ‘life with leopards’ way of life.
In Nairobi, nature has another dimension that is still missing in Mumbai: nature has become a logo; it is part of an urban strategy for attracting foreign investments, tourists and conferences. In this case, urban nature can become an iconic trademark used by the megacity to reinforce its international image, using the national park as a showcase for a better rank in the competition between “global cities”.
- MfSGNP 2012. A Forest Department and Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS) Collaborative Project to address Human-Leopard Conflict in and around Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai.
- Saglio-Yatzimirsky, M.C, Landy, F. ed. 2014. Megacity slums. Social Exclusion, Space and Urban Policies in Brazil and India. Imperial College Press, London.