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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Mumbai in fear after leopard savages two men on same day

The scar on Balaji Kamite’s cheek is healing and the pain from his broken nose has lessened but the shock of being savaged by a leopard in his Mumbai neighbourhood has yet to wear off.

Mr Kamite, a 40-year-old resident of the city’s eastern locality of Mulund, was the first of six people to be clawed and bitten by a leopard on the morning of January 13. When he rushed back into his house injured, his wife Nanda didn’t believe him at first: “You must be joking. It must have been a dog,” she said.

Mr Kamite works as a labourer, earning money for odd jobs he picks up on a day-to-day basis on construction sites, or in street markets, or any other kind of unskilled physical work he can find. His house is one of a cluster of small homes, with communal bathrooms, in a low-income area of the city.

The morning of the attack, he had set out for the bathroom when the leopard emerged from a small alley and pounced upon him. “Somehow I wriggled away and ran back home,” he said. His head and face were bleeding; there was so much blood on the floor that Ms Kamite thought she might faint.

The attack in Mulund was the latest in a series of attacks by leopards on humans in Mumbai, and the first this year. No official statistic exist for the number of such encounters, but over last year media reports counted seven people attacked, in individual incidents, in a single housing area.

That neighbourhood and Mr Kamite’s area of Mulund lie on either flank of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, a 104-square-kilometre forested reserve within the city. Between 35 and 40 leopards live in the park, said Jitendra Ramgaonkar, a conservator in the state’s forestry department.

Leopards have been slipping out of the park into the city for decades, Mr Ramgaonkar said. What has changed “is that the density of people living around the park has gone up,” he said. Mumbai’s population has grown from 8.2 million people in 1981 to more than 18 million people today, at 20,000 people per square kilometre.

“So the chances of encounters with these animals go up as well,” he said.

The increase in population has brought with it a rise in the number of stray animals around human settlements, with cats, dogs and pigs nosing around rubbish dumps or foraging on the streets. “There’s plenty of prey for these leopards in the park,” Mr Ramgaonkar said. “But it’s easier still to come out of the park and kill a stray dog, so the leopards end up doing that.”

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The installation of CCTV security cameras in residential areas has also increased leopard sightings. “Fifteen years ago, a leopard would come through your parking lot at night, and no one would see it,” Mr Ramgaonkar said. “Now they’re captured on these cameras and reported.”

“The number of incidents is stable. It averages to around four or five attacks each year, which is way below expectation if you consider the city’s population,” he said. ”But there is definitely a mentality of fear among people living near the park, and they need to be better protected.”

What the park needs, ideally, is a buffer zone, said Pawan Sharma, who runs RAWW, a non-profit organisation that tries to ameliorate cases of human-wildlife conflict in the city.

Mr Sharma gets calls about snakes in houses, or about injured birds, or monkey infestations. The periphery of the park is particularly vulnerable. “There should have been a zone around the park in which human settlements aren’t permitted,” Mr Sharma said. “Instead, there are thousands of people living in that area.”

Slums or low-income areas are easy targets, he said. “There are bushes, no proper roads, no proper garbage management, and lots of dogs roaming around,” he said. “Sometimes people don’t have bathrooms, so they go into the open to relieve themselves, and when they crouch down, they come to the eye level of the leopard.”

Mr Sharma dispenses precautions and advice to householders, including to rid streets of rubbish, to not leave children unattended, and to avoid unfamiliar areas at night. “Leopards will come into the city. We just need a way to keep ourselves safe, and to counter the leopards in a humane way.”

RAWW was among the agencies — along with the police and the forest department — that were called to Mulund after the leopard attacked Mr Kamite. “We often work with the department,” Mr Sharma said.

By the time they reached the neighbourhood, the leopard had entered a house of a man named Ganesh Poojari. Mr Poojari was also attacked, but after he managed to flee, and someone nearby locked the house with the leopard inside it.

It took another three hours for the forest department officials and Mr Sharma’s team to tranquillise the animal and return it to the park.

But for Mr Kamite, the fear remains.

“I don’t leave my house until 8am,” he said. “And if I’m going to the bathroom, I take someone with me. I’m terrified. In fact, everyone in our colony is very scared.

“There’s always a fear now that the leopard will return — that he will come out of nowhere and jump on me.”