Conservation photography can awe and appal in equal measure. For conservation photographer and naturalist Nayan Khanolkar, the latter emotion was triggered in March 2011, when visuals emerged of a leopard being burnt alive by angry villagers near Corbett Tiger Reserve in north India. A few months later, images splashed across the front pages of India’s newspapers of another stray leopard attacking several policemen and forest guards at a village near Siliguri in West Bengal’s Darjeeling district shocked him and scores of others.
That year also saw the unfolding of the all-so-familiar narrative of leopard attacks in and around the largest national park located within any metropolitan city in the world. When seven-year-old Prakash Salunkhe was killed by a leopard at Aarey Colony on the outskirts of Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in 2013, the last such incident reported from the city, public sentiment was against their feline neighbours, thanks to sensationalized reports in the media. Leopards belong to the jungle, and should not enter the city, was the common consensus. With little or no attention being drawn to the increasing encroachment and ghettoization around SGNP, the possibility that it might not be the leopards that are entering the city, but the city that is overtaking the jungle itself wasn’t fathomed. Misrepresentation of facts coupled with little knowledge of the area’s ecology was disserving the human and leopard cause together.
It was around this time that Nayan realised that long-term monitoring of areas from where these conflicts were being reported was the need of the hour. An initial survey based on conflict history, media reports, infrared camera-trap images, local and forest department officials’ accounts, was undertaken to find out indirect evidence of leopard presence in the form of scat and scrape marks outside the Protected Area of SGNP at Aarey Colony and Film City. Debunking the image of the snarling, apparently dangerous big cats shown on T.V and in newspapers, Nayan and his team used powerful DSLR camera trap imagery to show the quiet, everyday existence of urban leopards. They observed leopard movement, placed camera traps in these locations and waited. It took a few days, and sometimes weeks of uncertainty and perseverance, to obtain the images that Nayan had visualized. But the results were well worth the wait, more than capable of conveying the fact that these predators epitomised the adaptability and resilience of the very same Mumbaikars they were trying to convince that conflict is clearly a misnomer in a story essentially about coexistence.
Wildlife biologist Vidya Athreya’s pioneering work in rural Maharashtra discovered that capturing ‘problem’ leopards from farmlands and releasing them in forests was probably the primary cause for attacks. Forest officials, who had trapped leopards outside SGNP and released them in the park, now had an explanation for the spate of attacks in the early 2000s, which had severely jeopardised the leopards’ image as a coexisting neighbour.
Masters of stealth blessed with a sharp memory, these are intelligent animals that will go to great lengths to avoid humans. What were field lessons for the team, are life lessons for tribes such as Warlis and Mahadeo Kolis, who have historically inhabited this landscape. These tribes that depend on the forest have immense respect towards wildlife. It is not uncommon to see leopard paintings and motifs in the houses of Warlis, who worship the large cats and believe that harming the animal would invite bad luck. Such cultural and traditional practices have influenced the tremendous tolerance levels of communities lived in close proximity with wildlife across India and the concrete jungles around SGNP, where the leopard has survived admirably, is no exception.
As the mad race of urbanisation disconnects Mumbaikars from nature, it threatens the future of their urban neighbours. While the buffer between the city and its green lungs diminishes, a cancerous intolerance for straying cats looms. As a medium of communication, conservation photography is a tool like none other, which enters our collective consciousness to convince us of alternative realities. The photograph that you see on this page hopes to upturn the visual commentary of ‘leopards and conflict’ to ‘leopards and coexistence’. For it is only when such visuals become the norm, and not the exception, will true urban conservation stories be told.
This article written by Anirudh Nair, Assistant Editor with Sanctuary Asia magazine, was first published on Nayan Khanolkar’s website and is the first in a series documenting Khanolkar’s ongoing leopard tracking and camera-trapping exercise outside Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park.