Spot induced paranoia

1:04 PM

Cities in India have far more wildlife living in them than European cities by far, and Mumbai has one notorious predator that made it its home (or rather was there all along and never left): the leopard.
Yes you read that right, leopard, as the spotted nocturnal big cat. The reason being that in the outskirt of what is the actual Mumbai city (the one that has its city limits around Mahim) there is a national park, that park was once upon a time clearly outside the urban limits, and thanks to mass the expansion of Mumbai that lead to a succession of suburbs, the park is now in the middle of densely populated hub, the areas in the immediate boundaries of the national park are used to relatively frequent sightings of the big cats, in slums like settlements there even have been death cases, mostly childrens that leopards tend to mistake as small preys rather than consider them as human, and adult humans who go squatting in the bushes at night to relieve themselves, which again register in the mind of a leopard as nothing remotely human and a potential prey.
On rare occasion, leopard are sighted in the well heeled residential building compound built in close proximity to the park. Our area is one of these, though we aren’t exactly close to the park in question, there is just enough undeveloped terrain in between. My area has seen one death in the past 10 years, an unfortunate toddler that was playing outside after sunset. But since then the cats have been sighted regularly enough without incidents. In 2011 there was a notice in my building’s message board reporting such a sighting, the notice was detailed enough reminding people not to walk near the bushes and compound wall at night alone, and to not let the children play outside unsupervised and reminded people not to panic. Last year there were no notice, but just a few days ago the notice came again, announcing that some leopards have been sighted in the area on two occasions in the previous week at least, the notice was less elaborate than the previous time, but reminded people to be cautious after dark and avoid letting kids play outside alone.
This time around however, it turned into a paranoid fear of being out with kids alone, kids were kept indoor, forbidden to be out after school. And for a couple of days I was the only one still taking Ishita out for an hour or so to come back just after the sunset, most of her friends’ parents kept their kids inside under leopard curfew, the talk of the neighbourhood was about the spotted cat, the myth, the facts, came out, the rumours spread. The fear started grasping people the night few saw the big cat walking peacefully and casually on a pipeline away from too urbanized setting. The nasty fear…the blood thirsty killer was out, how could the authorities have let that happened! Outrage! Never mind that the cats have been seen regularly enough in the past couple of years with not a single attack on the humans living here, never mind that this time around there hasn’t been a single incident either. People suddenly feared for their lives. Many claiming that leopard only venture out in townships to attack humans and that it was the reason why it was there again. Sadly the sensational thirsty newspapers do not care to dispel the myth in question, and I for my part was among a minority (but certainly not the only one) of people who were not gripped by the psychosis in question, knowing the facts about our notorious indigenous predators. They aren’t human blood thirsty, a healthy adult leopard will not hunt a human on purpose, an adult human is far too big for them to drag to a hide out to eat, the few cases of death are all children, who were all playing or walking near bushes or near a forested area during the hours a leopard is active, simply because the cat mistook them for something else due to their short size. The adults who have been mauled, were resident of hut settlements without running water and were relieving themselves in the bushes at night, again their squatting down reducing their size and human appearance leading to the leopard mistaking them for some other small prey. Have there been instance of human killers? Yes, but my research only pointed at old, and wounded animals that could not hunt otherwise, they are not the norm. In my area people suddenly got gripped with ideas that the leopard would come running in the open and attack people…little do they bothered find out that Leopards do not really like being in urban territory and certainly not in open space, the ones sighted in our area have always been sighted in the neighbouring forest-y compound, or as close to the boundary wall as possible in ours before leaping back to safety in the bushes and trees on the other side. Like most cats they are solitary animals, who flee crowd and noise. As an anecdote, I went on a safari in Kenya as a kid, and during that one week the only animal we could not see was the leopard. Our guide explained that it was one of the toughest animal to spot in the savannah, first because they like to rest in tree dense area, then because they are nocturnal and hide well to sleep during daylight, and lastly because they are far more shy than cheetahs or lions. In short if leopard can stay in hiding, they will. Not very consistent with the wild idea my fellow neighbours had of an animal that would run around and create havoc in the area huh?
But then seeing the wildfire psychosis that suddenly grasped the neighbourhood, I went researching a bit more, in the chance I could have been totally wrong and downplaying things. Googling “Leopards in Mumbai” will pretty much only yield sensational articles and reports of death…all by the popular newspapers in the country, we all know what sells: drama, blood and gore, so not very surprised by the result of that search, not one article bothered to elaborate on leopards facts. One published in the Mirror recently did hint at the fact that cohabitation was possible, but not a very welcomed solution. Clearly I needed a better Google search key words. So I typed “Are leopards dangerous to humans”, after sifting through the usual lot of wiki answers and yahoo groups answers that are in most cases rubbish regardless of the question you type in Google I ended up finding a few articles that are more fact and research based. Yes human death due to leopard attacks are numerous enough, but only because it’s the only big cat that lives in too near proximity to urban settlement. Then there was this very good interview of a Wildlife Conservationist named Krishna Tiwari who lives in Mumbai which you can read here, in this interview he replies to the actual question of danger with this statement.

“It’s important to keep perspective. Leopards do kill humans when they are provoked, or when they mistake humans for other animals. But thousands of people die every year in road and rail accidents in Mumbai.  And if you compare this with people being killed by leopards, the risk is negligible. In fact, it is the leopards that are in danger. Heavy infrastructure growth and encroachment on nature has altered the habitats of these cats and depleted their prey base. This has threatened their future survival.”

I myself can only nod in agreement with the above statement. It just about summarizes what I have learned and read about leopards in the past, what few articles in papers over the years have said. They are not cold blooded killers and will not kill humans on purpose. To me it always seemed that the rate at which the city is developing, and the rest of the country by extension was pausing far more a danger to the big cat than the spotted feline was to us humans. All the other conclusive articles I found in my web search pointed to the same thing, ALL.
Meanwhile a bushwacking, tree trimming, and barbwire checking frenzy is going in the area in order to make the place less tempting for our feline neighbour to visit, flood lights have been installed around the wall compound, and the grapevine spoke of the forest department capturing one adult and one cub in the past few days. People hearing that are slowly breaking their curfew…the beast has been caught…hooray! All the while I don’t delude myself. We only got to know about their presence because of that notice and because someone in one of the neighbouring compound spotted one, but it’s almost every year that an adult and cubs are spotted in the area, the fact there was no notice last year didn’t mean there were no leopards. Kids were playing outside unsupervised, an attack could just have about happened anytime. I know that in a matter of days people will have forgotten all about it, the bushes will be left to grow wild again with very little maintenance, until the next notice…No one really wants to deal with the fact that no notice in the message boards doesn’t mean there is no risk, and that 3-4 days of panic induced fear of the outdoor is not the way to go. Education, dispelling myth and learning to live with the big cat’s presence is far more fruitful. And frankly speaking letting a child play unsupervised never stroke me as safe, feline predator or not. There are so many other ways a child could get killed in this area, and the one that makes people react is the least likely to happen…


  1. Beatrix4:12 PM

    As I'm sure you can well imagine here in Nepal we have LOTS of wildlife in some very urban places.
    What is odd to me is that the 'wild life' up here in the Himalayas isn't very 'wild' as compared to the wild life we had in California.
    For instance a leopard simply strolled through town in the late afternoon in my town & went into a storeroom at a local elementary school, climbed up into the rafters & took a snooze.
    The army & police were called & the leopard was chased away.
    Or like when I go out to hang the laundry on the roof of our house there's this one raven that will 'dive bomb' me & pull my hair.
    Kiangs (a type of wild donkey) are often seen in the colder months in the valley where I live just leisurely walking through traffic, munching on piles of rubbish by the road in town etc.
    In the more rural areas of southern Nepal (the Terai) villagers who go out in the 'bush' to forage for firewood & feed for livestock are regularly trampled by rhinos & wild elephants or eaten by tigers & leopards.
    Where I lived in California we had lots of deer, numerous wild game birds (wild turkeys, quail) squirrels, bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, foxes, bears, and the occasional rattlesnake. Deer, turkey & could be seen during the day - predators like mountain lions mostly at night but ALWAYS at a distance, very , very skittish around humans.
    I have a question for you, a group of Belgians speaking perfect 'Hoch Deutsch' came to my gallery the other day. I was surprised as I thought Belgians spoke French or some Dutch dialect like Platt Deutsch?
    Do you know if there is a sizable German speaking community in Belgium?
    I was a bit embarrassed to ask & certainly wasn't about to try my horrid 'Hoch Deutsch' on them.

  2. In Switzerland we have foxes in cities but they are scared of humans and rarely spotted, in the country side there are deers and wild boars along with foxes, skunks and badgers and other hedge hogs. In the Alps we have serveral type of mountain goats and deers, the Wolf made a return in Europe a decade or so ago, after being absent for ages, debate about them returning sparked, the good old myth of the killer wolves along with them...pretty much the same kind of things I hear about leopards I have heard about wolves.
    I never heard Beligians speaking German, at least not as a language in Belgium, the country is divided between Dutch speaking areas and French speaking ones, but then Germany is not far away so it could make sense too.

  3. Beatrix11:02 PM

    Your post just reminded me of the first time I visited Nepal in 1997 with the 'Hippies from Hell".
    The 'Hippies from Hell' were this obnoxious couple I met from my home town in California - relics from 70's who swore they knew 'all' about Nepal & had this really nice guided 'tour' of Nepal at a very reasonable price.
    Turns out all they wanted to do was smoke opium & hash (plus they brought a box of epidermic syringes? were they expecting heroine too?)
    Me, 2 lesbians, and another hippy 'relic made up their little 'tour group'.
    So they'd get up early every morning & RUN to the next spot on our 'itinerary' & then 'crash' in a puff of smoke.
    Anyhow this got rather tiresome.
    I am not a 'smoker' of anything.
    When they weren't 'high' they were constantly spewing their political viewpoints (Maoist) until you agreed with them.
    They knew absolutely NOTHING about Nepal & kept telling us a bunch of crap they made up.
    One of the lesbians developed some sort romantic relationship with one of the hippy guys, while the other lesbian sulked & snarled in jealous fits.
    Somewhere in the middle of the Annapurna circuit I had enough & deserted the 'group'.
    I found a 12 yr old Gurung kid to help me carry my stuff & guide me back to the East West highway.
    He took me on this trail through a forest that was nearly vertical.
    We turned a sharp corner & there in the trail was a huge langur monkey.
    I was a bit startled, the kid & the monkey were unperturbed.
    The langur stuck his hand out to me & looked me straight in the eye.
    I put down my pack & dug out an orange & handed it to the langur.
    The langur took it & began cal my peeling it.
    There was no room on this vertical trail to get around the langur & he wasn't moving.
    So I sat down & laughed.
    What next?
    We tried shooing them away, yelling & made threatening gestures with rocks.
    Two more langurs show up.
    Ok so I empty my pack - potato chips, 2 more oranges, a chocolate bar, a box of biscuits, a bottle of sunblock.
    The langurs ate it all & even tried to drink the sunblock. They checked my pockets on my cargo pants.
    They checked the pack the kid was wearing.
    (Nothing but clothes & toiletries)
    They weren't really threatening as they were hilarious.
    The langurs even tried the toothpaste.
    Then they just got bored & left.
    We eventually made it to the highway, after having to cross one of those wiggly, narrow, rusty cable bridges that hangs 3,000 ft high over a huge rapid river. YIKES!!!
    I gave the kid 20$ & hailed a taxi to the nearest town & met my future husband in his tiny shop the next day.
    That was a bit of a rant, but that's how I met my husband!

  4. Beatrix11:05 PM

    That should have been 'calmly peeling the orange when 2 more langurs show up.'
    Or something like that.

  5. Oh god I totally get the visual of them trying to eat the toothpaste and sunblock :)
    That's one memorable story in the 'How did you meet your husband" category.

  6. Alexandra Madhavan6:19 AM

    Just wanted to let you know your blog is one of my faves!



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