In June 2015, we got an emergency call from the residents of a gated community on the outskirts of Bengaluru. The security personnel had sighted a leopard during their nighttime rounds. We arrived at the location as soon as we could.
The complex was intended to accommodate a few families, in a parody of country-living. It abutted a beautiful dry deciduous forest, a part of which stretched into the housing complex. Owing to our interest in large cats and on the request of the community and the forest department, we initiated camera trapping in this gated community to understand how many leopards survived here and what their movement patterns were like. In addition, we initiated a study in other parts of the city’s outskirts.
Around the same time, we got a request from a school, not very far from the gated community, for similar support. The large school campus, which was spread over nearly one hundred acres, hosted dry deciduous forests and was contiguous to other reserved forests, including BM Kaaval and UM Kaaval.
These forests are nearly 1,700 acres in size and are connected to the Bannerghatta National Park through other forest patches that are under private ownership that are nearly twice the size of what is under government ownership. These forests made a good habitat for leopards.
Our traps indicated that the school had three adult leopards, two males and a female, using its space besides the students, teachers and other staff. In the gated community, there were two sub-adults and a large male leopard. Though these animals were photographed by us within the school and the gated community, they were using the larger landscape.
Our study provided some wonderful insights into the lives of these spotted cats. Though we had a few leopards walk in front of our cameras, the sequence of images was more interesting. In the gated community, senior citizens walked past the camera traps for their end-of-the-day walks. A couple of kilometres away, young school children played, their playful performances captured on the cameras. A few minutes later leopards would trigger the camera traps, imperceptibly appearing in the same spots as the human activities drew to a close.
At the school, one of the male leopards was frequently camera trapped near the art building. Perhaps it liked the artwork of the children!
In some places, leopards revealed their presence in maize fields, but disappeared as soon as the crops were harvested. Tall standing crops, such as maize, perhaps acted as a good temporary cover for the felids.
Outreach activities by us at gated communities, schools, a space research organisation and research institutes have helped the residents deal with the leopard presence and learn other precautionary measures that needed to be taken. Our spatial information on the leopard’s occurrence on the city’s outskirts seemed to depict a trend but also confirmed what we had already started to piece together in other areas.
Though they used agricultural areas such as maize fields, leopards mostly seemed to occur within natural habitats, such as rocky outcrops and forest patches, from the north-west to the southern side of the city, in a semi-circular form. The message was clear: leopards survive in areas where there is a mosaic of natural forests, rocky outcrops, and sub-optimal habitats that provide temporary cover. Importantly, natural habitats seem to be key for the leopard’s survival.
My experience in Bengaluru indicates that leopards are not present “inside” cities, but have adapted as the natural habitats around metropolises change. Solitary and nocturnal, they can slip by in the darkness without being noticed and, of course, their size helps them survive on medium-sized prey, like domestic dogs, that are found in high densities in urbanised environments. The leopard is increasingly making room for itself in an urbanised environment. But it is certainly not living amidst a sea of humans, residential and commercial buildings, and is not “urban”.
During this exercise, apart from the secretive leopards, we found other interesting wildlife. Once, a smooth-coated otter, which survives in large lakes and rivers, suddenly appeared in the camera traps we had installed in the famed Svetoslav Roerich and Devika Rani Estate in southern Bengaluru. Often found traversing the estate were barking deer, chital and several other large mammals.
I wonder how long this feline population and other wildlife will survive on the borders of this ever-growing city.
Bengaluru’s rise as a technological hub has made the city more affluent for some. As the city has become more prosperous and real estate has become more and more valuable, the city’s outskirts have begun to change. Like an amoeba, the city is engulfing the villages within its boundaries to sustain itself. As Bengaluru’s urban sprawl expands mile after mile, most rocky outcrops and the dry forests that provide refuge for the leopards are slowly disappearing, sucked into the needs of development.
Overnight, habitats that once harboured a myriad variety of wildlife have been converted to a concrete swamp of industries, highways, malls, tall housing complexes and metro stations. As leopards and development compete for the same scarce real estate, it is the big cats and other wildlife that get caught in the relentless process of social and economic change.
Though the landscape surrounding the city has gone through a number of drastic changes over several millennia, the current modifications and the speed at which they are unfolding is unprecedented. The size of the city has increased over 300 per cent in the last twenty years. The city’s greater metropolitan area has grown explosively from every side, doubling between 2001 and 2011 with the current area at 741 sq kms (183,105 acres).
This has been accompanied by a colossal growth in population, unimagined in the city’s past – Bengaluru’s human population has grown by 47 per cent between 2001 and 2011, increasing from 6.5 to 9.6 million, currently matching the population of the New York metropolitan area.
The urban sprawl has rapidly become far less friendly as a neighbourhood for wildlife. As urban areas expand, not only do the natural habitats of leopards shrink, but so does the continuity to other natural habitats – the agricultural fields that leopards earlier used to move from one natural patch to another are now rapidly being converted to housing, commercial and industrial projects, isolating the leopards that live in the surrounding areas and decreasing their chances for survival.
For instance, leopards that existed in the Turahalli forest have now disappeared, as this small reserved forest (2.5 sq kms) is now surrounded by housing complexes and its connectivity to the BM Kaaval Reserved Forest and to Bannerghatta National Park further south has been severed. Such local extinctions have been well documented in this country’s history.
Leopards may still survive in the vicinity of large cities if there is sufficient cover and continuity to other natural habitats.
To give an example, it is likely that leopards will continue to exist in the Bannerghatta National Park (260 sq kms), which adjoins the southern side of Bengaluru city. Luckily, Bannerghatta is connected to a few reserved forests in Tamil Nadu and, more importantly, to the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary to its south, through a very narrow corridor. Our previous conservation work had ensured that this corridor was brought under the protected area status.
This should act as insurance for larger wildlife to survive in the long run in Bannerghatta. This hypothesis is backed by the situation in Nairobi National Park, across the globe. Part of the national park connects to other larger tracts of woodland savannahs, which continue for hundreds of square kilometres. Therefore, these natural habitats support the long-term subsistence of large mammals in this national park, and so should Bannerghatta.
The land around Bannerghatta, however, is getting highly urbanised. The northern and western edges of the national park are already ensconced in a sea of development. So the leopards that live inside Bannerghatta could venture into urbanised areas due to easy access to domestic food sources, including dogs, livestock and poultry. This is not an ideal situation, either for the leopard or for the people. Yet, if you eliminate the forests in Bannerghatta, there would perhaps be no leopards left in this area.
Excerpted with permission from Leopard Diaries: The Rosette in India, Sanjay Gubbi, Westland.