SGNP is not only home to leopards but also forms part of a larger landscape for wild animals (including leopards) in the region. Leopards can easily walk from the Western Ghats to Mumbai as we recently discovered ( see http://www.projectwaghoba.in/docs/ajobas_trek_to_mumbai_toi.pdf ). Leopards have always been part of the natural landscapes in the region, as were tigers till very recently. However, with forests shrinking the tigers are gone, while the highly adaptable leopards continue to hold on. Leopards will inevitably be sighted on the periphery of SGNP because of abundant food resources such as stray dogs, which live off garbage. A two decade-old study found that dogs formed 70% of the leopards’ diet in SGNP. There are also numerous records of leopards coming to villages, in many parts of India, to hunt dogs.
Thus, leopards have lived in close proximity with humans, but what we need to realise is that leopards will not harm us if we do not harm them first. You may ask then why did leopards attack so many people in and around SGNP from early 1990s till 2006? Since then there has only been one attack in 2007 and none thereafter. And yet leopards are seen routinely along the park’s periphery. The reason is likely to be due to the biologically inappropriate management interventions we were carrying out—since the late 1980s large numbers of leopards were trapped around SGNP every year. They were either released within the park or in distant forest areas like Tungareshwar and Tansa. Inexplicably, leopards trapped from these areas and even other districts of Maharashtra were released in SGNP. The prevalent assumption was leopards had no social connections and could be picked like pebbles from one place and dumped elsewhere. This resulted in animals injured during trapping as well as mothers separated from their cubs and vice versa, being released indiscriminately in areas entirely new to them.
Cats are highly territorial and know their area very well. If such an animal is removed and suddenly placed in a new place then the chances of conflict increase with negative repercussions for humans as well. Since 2006, leopard capture has been stopped by the SGNP administration. However, the public sometimes demand leopards be trapped after a mere sighting of a leopard. The Thane forest division (which governs forest areas outside SGNP) try to not trap as much as possible but it is also the responsibility of the public to not put pressure on the administration to carry out interventions that will have direct negative effects for people and leopards.
It should also be noted that there will always be a chance of an attack because leopards are potentially dangerous animals. However, deliberate attacks will be very rare if we keep our interventions to the minimum.
What worsens conflict are: