The Waghoba temple in Mumbai’s Aarey Milk Colony houses an idol of a big cat. Resembling a tiger, the idol is worshipped by Adivasi communities living in the area. A few metres away, a new statue is set to be inaugurated in Aarey – that of a leopard – in reverence of the feline residents the locals share their space with, in the 13 square km Aarey Milk Colony.

The leopard population in Aarey Milk Colony, or AMC, is small and often studied together with the leopards in the bordering Sanjay Gandhi National Park, or SGNP, which has one of the highest densities of leopards in the world. But with Aarey now a proposed site for a metro project, the wildlife of AMC specifically is in focus.

The green patch in the midst of urban Mumbai’s western suburbs is identified for a metro car shed for the Mumbai Metro Rail Corridor line from Colaba to SEEPZ, or the Special Electronics Export Processing Zone, in the Andheri East area, which runs between south and north Mumbai. The Environment Impact Assessment report for the proposed metro project in Aarey stated “no wildlife has been observed at project site”.

But camera traps show otherwise.

The Waghoba deity is worshipped by the Adivasi communities in Aarey Milk Colony and Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Photo credit: Kartik Chandramouli

A group of researchers and wildlife enthusiasts, in collaboration with the forest department, has diligently been recording data of wildlife, including the elusive predators that have made Aarey their home.

In Aarey, at any given time, there are about four to five adult leopards, including a transient population, that moves between Aarey and the national park. Four adult females, Adarsh Nagar, Bindu, Chandani and Luna have been regularly showing up in data recorded over various periods since this specific monitoring activity began in Aarey in 2015.

The initiative is led by a mixed group consisting of wildlife biologist Nikit Surve, honorary wildlife warden Mayur Kamath, journalist Ranjeet Jadhav, researcher Rajesh Sanap and team members Imran Udat, Kaushal Dubey, Prabhu Swami, Hitendra Pachkale, Sudam Nawale, Kunal Chaudhary, Satish Lot and Shahid. Some of the members were familiar with awareness programs through their former work with “Mumbaikars for SGNP”, a forest department and citizen initiative to deal with human and leopard interaction in the neighbouring national park.

“We work in collaboration with the citizens and researchers for monitoring the leopards in Aarey,” said Jitendra Ramgaonkar, deputy conservator of forests, Thane, highlighting the success of the model where citizens and the government have been working together for conservation. “We provide equipment, some labour and our staff is already stationed in the area. The ultimate goal of this partnership is to create a peaceful coexistence of leopards and humans and change the perception towards the often misunderstood predators.”

A view of the Aarey Milk Colony and the urban jungle of suburban Mumbai around it. Aarey falls in the ecosensitive zone of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park but it is not notified as a forest. Photo credit: Rajesh Sanap

The Indian leopard is listed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, providing it the highest level of legal protection. Leopard falls under the near threatened category.

“Leopards are among the most adaptable species of cats and are found everywhere. They are comfortable in close proximity with humans,” said Vidya Athreya, scientist at Wildlife Conservation Society and an expert in human-leopard interaction, emphasising that leopards living in close quarters with humans is a common occurrence.

Adarsh Nagar, the leopard who ‘doesn’t give a damn’

Adarsh Nagar, named after a locality in Mumbai which she frequented, was observed in Aarey for close to four months between 2012 and 2013.

While leopards usually prefer to stay hidden, Adarsh Nagar was “quite a bold” leopard, according to Rajesh Sanap, a researcher with the team. “There was a time when a team from BBC was visiting Aarey to get some footage for a documentary on leopards. Adarsh Nagar walked on the road for hours while the crew followed her, filming her,” he said.

Adarsh Nagar walks on a path used by locals in Aarey. Photo credit: Sunny Patil

Most leopards are fine with the presence of humans as long as they have spaces to go into hiding, said Sanap. This is significant in the wake of the upcoming infrastructure projects in the area. Leopards are likely to be comfortable coexisting with people that the projects bring in. But the absence of natural cover is what could drive leopards into human-occupied spaces and create chances of conflict.

Sanap narrated an instance of an abandoned industrial plot in Marol, a busy part of northern Mumbai, where a leopard lived for an entire week. “The leopard had no problem being near humans, as long as it had its own space,” he said. “Leopards are active animals, they can live anywhere. The problem will come once the green spaces begin to disappear and there is no space to hide.”

Ramgaonkar added, “There are tribal communities, new housing societies and Film City in and around Aarey. And there are leopards. We can’t remove any of them from the area. Our efforts are to work towards coexistence.” The Thane Forest Department has control over forest related issues and wildlife cases in the area, but Aarey specifically is not a notified forest and is under the administrative jurisdiction of the dairy department. Aarey however, comes within an ecosensitive zone around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, identified by the government in 2016.

Adarsh Nagar crosses a road in Aarey. Photo credit: Rajesh Sanap

Bindu, the leopard who feels at home among humans

Bindu was first spotted by the team in Aarey in 2011 when she was a cub. Even then, she was a curious creature, closely following the team members after they spotted her. Bindu was shy but always had an affinity for human-dominated landscapes. From a five-star hotel to housing societies and even a film set, Bindu was often spotted roaming the concrete jungle that came up in and around Aarey. There were multiple attempts to relocate Bindu to the core Sanjay Gandhi National Park area but she made her way back to Aarey, establishing it as her home, alongside her human neighbours.

Monitoring Bindu was an interesting study in leopard behaviour for the team, given that Bindu had such a unique personality.

But are leopards usually so comfortable around humans? “The area where the Royal Palms housing society, where Bindu has been spotted, is located right between the Aarey Milk Colony and Sanjay Gandhi National Park,” said Sanap. “It is likely that this site was a corridor for leopards moving between Aarey and the national park.”

Leopards do not imagine boundaries the way humans do. For Bindu, the housing society location was still part of the territory she regularly traversed.

Bindu was first spotted in Aarey in 2011 when she was a cub. Photo credit: Steven van Dortmond

Leopards can share spaces with humans as long as prey population (both domestic and wild) remain sufficient and their habitat is protected.

In Aarey, the Warlis, an indigenous tribe inhabiting the area, appear to accept the presence of leopards as a normal occurrence. They also appear to know about the behaviour of the animal. The knowledge about how to avoid conflict with leopards and live peacefully with them is being passed to them through generations, according to a 2018 report on leopards in Sanjay Gandhi National Park and its surrounding areas, prepared by wildlife biologist Nikit Surve in collaboration with the park’s director Anwar Ahmed.

“The tribal communities in the area have a deeper understanding of their wild neighbours which automatically creates deeper empathy and enables them to share the space and coexist peacefully,” said Athreya.

For the newer population that has moved into and around Aarey, the data collected by the team is key in building awareness. “We have camera traps that show humans and leopards in the same location at the same time,” said Surve. “The people may not even be aware that was a leopard in that location.” Such data helps the team provide proof of human and leopard coexistence in their awareness programs.

Chandani, the three-legged leopard

Chandani was a veteran of Aarey, observed by the team over five years. In 2016, the traps laid out for catching wild boars was where Chandani met her end.

“Chandani had one paw missing when we discovered her,” said Sanap. “There is a common misconception that injured animals attack human children. But Chandani was never known for attacking humans.”

In fact, Chandani had her own little cub, an unlikely occurrence for an injured female leopard.

Video by Prabhu Swami

While humans feared that one day she would attack their children, the fear should have been Chandani’s. Her child too succumbed to a trap laid out by humans.

“She was our star. A fighter,” said Sanap. “She successfully coexisted in Aarey despite missing a paw. Had no conflict.”

Chandani succumbed to injuries inflicted by a snare trap. Photo credit: Prabhu Swami

Luna, the leopard rearing the next generation

Holding the fort for leopard population in Aarey is the female leopard Luna. First spotted in 2015, Luna is the most documented leopard of the area. She has raised two litters in Aarey and has a third litter under her watch at present.

Continued monitoring of Luna could give more insight into the leopards of Aarey, their behaviour and their adaptation to the landscape as humans take over.

“Mumbai is now so populous and overcrowded that it is no more a congenial home for wild animals,” says the Environment Impact Assessment report for the metro project in Aarey. “Greater Mumbai at present comprises mainly of residential and industrial areas. At present there is no forest in the true sense except the national park at Borivali, extending over an area of about 19.18 sq km. Hence, wildlife as such is almost extinct from Mumbai.”

Camera trap footage has helped researchers and officials track and study the presence of leopards in Aarey. Photo credit: Thane Forest Department

Dismissal of wildlife as “almost extinct” by such reports only highlights the importance of work that the team is doing in camera trapping and documenting visibly existing wildlife in Aarey.

“With camera traps, we can identify the leopards, something that we can’t do manually,” said Surve, pointing out that conservation takes time and continuous monitoring over the long term will help understand leopard population better.

“Through the data collection work, we get an idea of the movement of leopards. When there is a human-leopard conflict, the forest department is called in,” said Ramgaonkar. “Data helps us pinpoint which is the individual leopard involved in the conflict. We get good support from citizens. We share information about sightings. Through collaboration with people doing scientific study, we can help citizens understand leopards and not panic.”

The team of researchers and volunteers has put together their findings in Aarey in a report to the forest department.

Mumbai, a role model for human-leopard coexistence?

Athreya feels Mumbai can be a model for collaborative efforts by citizens, NGOs and government to deal with leopards sensitively. Given that leopards are found in urban areas all over the country – Gurugram, Bengaluru, Guwahati, Shimla and other cities – Mumbai’s success story could be adapted to other places.

Surve too believes that Mumbai has pretty much an ideal situation in the understanding of leopards in urban spaces and handling human-leopard interactions. “Citizens are aware and often provide us information when they encounter a leopard,” he said. The media in Mumbai is also sensitised about the issue of human-leopard interactions and reporting has become more accurate, added Athreya.

Leopards who have been coexisting alongside humans for a while in Mumbai, understand the habits and schedules of the residents and plan their activities to avoid interactions, explains Surve. “Removal of leopards from an area is not a solution because another leopard will always take over the space. You rather have a leopard that has been living there for a while because it has adapted to the residents,” he said, adding that leopards have proven that they can coexist peacefully with humans, it is the humans that need to reciprocate.

Luna and a male at a watering hole in Aarey, built for birds and other animals by regular walkers and joggers. Photo credit: Ranjeet Jadhav

The Adivasi communities in Aarey that worship the Waghoba deity – representing usually a tiger or a leopard – believe it is the protector of the jungle and of them.

But who is going to protect Waghoba? The question around the future of leopards in Aarey looms. Could these be their last days here? What will happen to the leopards once the infrastructure project is in full swing? Will the leopards adapt or fade away?

Sanap feels the leopards have proven that they are willing to live alongside humans. It is now the turn of the humans to do their bit for peaceful coexistence with the beings that came before them to Aarey Milk Colony. Said Sanap, “Animals are willing to coexist. Humans should now take responsibility.”

A leopard statue awaits inauguration near the metro car shed site in Aarey. Photo credit: Kartik Chandramouli

This article first appeared on Mongabay.