All photos: Nikit Surve/SGNP


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wild wild country

Leopards Live Alongside Locals in These Lanes

Human encroachment into Mumbai’s contested ‘forest’ lands leads us to a question we never thought we’d ask: Can predators and people coexist in a concrete jungle?
Dhvani Solani
Mumbai, IN

Living deep inside the urban jungle that is Mumbai, I sometimes forget about the real jungle lying within city limits, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP). I’m sure it’s the same for many others living in countries that have big cities with bright lights and a chance of man-wild animal interactions: From Singapore to Bangladesh and Australia. And yet, unknown to me, this jungle is affecting my life everyday. Thanks to SGNP that carries the unique distinction of being one of the largest tropical forests anywhere in the world to be completely surrounded by urban sprawl, we in Mumbai are suffering far less than our Delhi and Bengaluru friends choking on their poisonous air. The vast swathes of SGNP’s green act as lungs as also catchment areas for the lakes.


The apex predator out here is the leopard. As the urban sprawl grows and encroaches the forests, the human-wild animal interaction has only gone up, often giving the feline bad press in the process. Now, with the surrounding Aarey Milk Colony becoming the site of a pitched battle between state and citizen (the former proposed a 30-hectare car shed for Metro III out here), it remains to be seen how humans are going to treat the animal on land that originally belonged to it. Past records prove the future isn’t looking too bright for the leopard.

Tracking and photographing the cat in its natural habitat out here is wildlife biologist Nikit Surve, who will talk about the leopards of Mumbai at an event called Awaaz Do this evening (January 31, 2019). The fundraising event also puts together a kickass roster of musicians (Ankur & The Ghalat Family, Swadesi, Maati Baani, Prakash Bhoir & the Aarey Collective [Bhoir is the tribal chieftain of Aarey colony], and Avi) to raise funds for non-profit organisation Vanashakti, with the help of Youth For Aarey, who have been actively fighting for the preservation of the Aarey forest and the Mithi river in Mumbai. There will also be a small talk by Stalin Dayanand, director of Vanashakti, on the fragile forests and rivers of Mumbai.

Surve, also a leopard researcher and Research Associate at the Wildlife Conservation Society—India, will talk of his experiences with the big cat in the city. “These leopards are learning and passing on to the next generation their lessons on how to live with humans without confrontation,” he tells VICE. “But are we doing that? We need development, but at what cost? The air we breathe and the water we drink? By saving the leopard, we save our forests and we save ourselves.”


Dusk settles in as a leopard walks around the Yeoor Hills that lie at the eastern edge of SGNP near Thane.


" Part of my research included wanting to understand human-animal interaction. I learnt that the leopard is very shy, smaller than we imagine, secretive, and the most adaptable cat."—Nikit Surve


A female leopard slyly entering her den.


"Leopards don't follow political boundaries like we do."—Nikit Surve


"I simply want to let people know coexistence can exist. Simple things like torches keep them away. They are far more scared of people than we are of them, and we are understanding and conveying this to people."—Nikit Surve


Pani, whose official name was L28 used to frequent areas of SGNP as well as Aarey and was regularly captured in camera trap set up. However, on January 1, she was found killed after getting trapped in an illegal snare. This image was the first one that documented how leopards ventured out of the forest to hunt dogs who were easy prey.


"We clicked this female leopard in 2017. She had two cubs with her. She might've killed this domestic fowl outside the forest boundary, probably from an Adivasi hamlet. But they don't report it or treat this as conflict. They look at it as part of life."—Nikit Surve

Awaaz Do is a cultural initiative by 4/4 Experiences to address, act and positively contribute towards solving urban problems that plague Mumbai. For more information, go here .