Choking: City’s green lung Dwindling: Leopard count

Choking:City’s green lung Dwindling: Leopard count

10 March 2008

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Mumbai, India — With four leopards dead and two leopard attacks onhumans in the last six months, officials at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP)are a worried lot. The park, sprawled across 109 sq km on the city’s fringes,is under pressure on multiple fronts—the leopard count is dwindling rapidly,residential development in areas like Thane and Borivali is closing in on thebuffer areas around the forest, and there is still no final solution toencroachments within.

* On March 1, a leopard cub fell into a well in Ovalekarwadi, Thane.Efforts to save the cub proved futile.
* On February 17, a leopard was found dead in Wanichapada, a tribal hamlet inthe Yeoor hills. The cause of death is still unknown.
* On January 24, a full-grown leopard was found dead on the outskirts of theSanjay Gandhi National Park. Park authorities said the cause of death was oldage.
* On December 19, 2007 a leopard strayed out of the park and injured two people.It went on to hide in a colony 3 km away from the forest before being trappedafter 18 hours of efforts by various authorities.

The most pressing problem is the leopard numbers. If 2001 and 2002 saw42 leopards in the park, five years later the figure has gone down a mere 20.The reasons range from old-age deaths and man-animal conflict to accidents.

Incidentally, most of the deaths as well as leopard attacks haveoccurred in the Yeoor range of the park, which constitutes around 60 per cent ofthe forest. Since 2003, five leopards have died only along Ghodbunder Road afterbeing hit by speeding vehicles. It’s a busy highway, connecting the westernand eastern suburbs as well as the Mumbai-Ahmedabad Highway. The Yeoor rangeruns parallel to Ghodbunder Road, along which scores of residential colonieshave sprung up over the past few years. The area adjacent to Ghodbunder Road,while not part of the Park area, was an extended lush zone serving as a bufferthat has all but disappeared beneath high-rises and residential townships.

And it is the Yeoor range that has seen the deaths of four leopardssince last October, following vehicle hits and instances of animal-man conflict.

“Another reason (for numbers falling) was that some 25-27 leopardswere trapped in 2003-04 when there was a spate of incidents of leopard attacksaround the park. So the figure came down by 50 per cent,” says PrashantMahajan from the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). These leopards have beeneither been kept in captivity at the SGNP or at the Rehabilitation Centre inJunnar, Pune. Twenty-two leopards are in captivity in the SGNP, including manycaptured from other forest regions.

However, Conservator of Forests P N Munde says the figure is fine.“The average capacity of the park is some 20-22 leopards. We also have to lookat it according to the leopard-prey ratio.”

Munde says the bigger problem for Park officials is the shrinkingforest owing to encroachers along the periphery. “There are some 3 to 4 lakhencroachers in the park. The High Court has given us the time till July so thatwe can remove the encroachments.” According to reports filed before the HighCourt last year, some 49,000 families had been removed and 11,658 were to berehabilitated.

One solution was to build a 22-km wall along the park border. Theconstruction of the wall has also been done, but half-heartedly. “We havecompleted the construction of 14 km of the wall. We are facing the problems asthere is encroachment in some area,” says Munde.

Another rising concern is the recurring forest fires. Yeoor RangeForest Officer P R Masurkar says: “Ours is a deciduous forest. So weexperience more leaf fall and it keeps on accumulating. So whenever a forestfire breaks out, it spreads. But other reasons behind the forest fires aremiscreants straying into the forest.” The range has seen seven or eightincidents of fire since last Tuesday, but a final report on them is yet to beprepared.

“During this period (February-March) the khajoli plant, which causesa terrible itching sensation, also sheds its leaves. The seed burst results initching. That’s one reason encroachers set fires,” says a forest guard,adding that fire-fighting techniques used are rather ineffective.

“With this, the hills are losing their green cover. More than naturalcauses, it’s the miscreants setting fires that is the bigger problem,” saysPunam Singavi of the NGO Hariyali and an ‘honorary wildlife warden’ of theForest Department. “When trees are burnt during the fire, the hills lose theirsoil cover, resulting in barren hills. These are ideal locations forencroachment.”

There are more issues—lack of credibility to animal census figuressince the method of counting is obsolete, lack of funds and lack of skilledmanpower. For SGNP, often labelled the city’s lungs, it’s time for a breathof fresh air.

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