leopards of mumbai

King of The Urban Jungle: The Leopards Of Mumbai

8 mins

Long protected by Mumbai’s tribal communities, can the city’s famously adaptable urban leopards survive urbanisation and sterilisation?

A megacity with a population of 20 million, Mumbai is probably the last place you’d expect to see leopards prowling in the streets at night. But these elusive predators have been roaming the outskirts of India’s most populous city, located in the southwestern state of Maharashtra, for decades now. 

This is largely thanks to the country’s only protected urban forest. Set squarely in the city limits, Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) and its bordering suburbs are home to the world’s highest density of leopards: 21 per 60 square miles.

Living in extraordinary proximity to people, The King of Mumbai’s Urban Jungle benefits from having the top level of legal protection under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act. But is this enough to safeguard the city’s big cats from SGNP’s increasingly urbanised and fragmented fringes?

Adaption of the Fittest

mumbai's forest backs onto the city
The park where the leopards live borders the city of Mumbai

Man and beasts’ peaceful coexistence in Mumbai is not as implausible as you’d think. ‘Leopards are very, very adaptable. They’re some of the smartest large cats in the world; living everywhere from dense evergreen forests to urban locations,’ Anand Pendharkar, wildlife biologist and founder of eco-tourism and outdoors company SPROUTS, tells The Ethicalist. ‘We’ve even found leopards breeding inside pipes under roads with a billion cars passing over their heads!’ 

For almost four decades Pendharkar has been documenting the biodiversity of Aarey Milk Colony (AMC), a 3,000-acre buffer zone bordering the southern wall of Mumbai’s national park. Set in the northern suburb of Goregaon, it’s the territory of a transient subpopulation of 45 leopards that move freely between AMC and SGNP; known collectively as ‘Mumbai’s Green Lung’. 

‘Leopards are very, very adaptable. They’re some of the smartest large cats in the world, living everywhere from dense evergreen forests to urban locations. We’ve even found them breeding inside pipes under roads with a billion cars passing over their heads!’ 

‘These leopards are holding the forest together,’ Pendharkar says. A mosaic landscape of scrublands, streams, small farming plots and deciduous forest, Aarey Milk Colony is also home to a veterinary hospital, a milk processing plant, residential towers and some 16,000 cattle. Around six leopards permanently cohabit with AMC’s 500,000 illegal slum dwellers, 27 indigenous hamlets and numerous buffalo herders.

Surviving and Thriving

an Indian leopard looking at the camera
Leopards can change their spots: they feed on 100 different prey but humans are seldom on the menu

Surviving and thriving in Mumbai’s semi-urban spaces is partly down to these big cats being decidedly un-picky eaters. A species known to feed on more than 100 different prey, wild and domestic, leopards may be large carnivores, but thankfully, humans are seldom on the menu. 

In fact, Mumbai’s ‘Silicon Cats’ will go out of their way to actively avoid humans. It’s a belief backed up by a two-year radio-collaring project – a collaboration between the Maharashtra Forest Department and the Wildlife Conservation Society – which GPS-tracked the movements of five leopards: Savitri, Tulsi, Kranti, Jeevan and Maharaja, living on SGNP’s periphery. Concluded in 2023, their findings confirmed conservationists’ suspicions – that these leopards had no-to-few interactions with humans, and only visited highly urbanised areas at night. 

‘Around seven people die under Mumbai’s railway trains daily. A leopard hasn’t killed that many in 20 years,’ Pendharkar says, adding that the city’s leopards are ‘remarkably well behaved.’ That’s not to say that some residents’ fears are baseless. Leopard attacks on people peaked in 2002 when 25 incidents were recorded in Mumbai. Pendharkar admits that ‘an injured or old leopard who can’t hunt so well can stray, and will try to be opportunistic.’ In the rare instance where a human-leopard interaction does arise, it’s more than often in Aarey’s slums, where poultry and pigs make for easy pickings.

But there’s a strong argument for why these peri-urban cats’ services to public health outweigh their threat to human life by protecting suburbanites from rabies. According to a study undertaken by researchers at the University of Queensland in 2018, feral dogs constitute 40 per cent of the diet of leopards living in the national park and Aarey. This means Mumbai’s misunderstood predators prevent up to 1,000 bite incidents every year. That’s equivalent to 90 potential cases of rabies; a disease which is almost always fatal.

Revered Not Feared

Tribal markings from the native tribe show harvest season
Tribal markings from the native tribe show harvest season

One of Mumbai’s leopards’ greatest allies is Aarey’s 10,000 indigenous Adivasis, who live in mud-brick homes within padas (hamlets). Native tribes of Maharashtra’s forests, Aarey’s Warli Adivasis not only have a deep-rooted and unbreakable bond with nature, but a cultural reverence for its carnivorous cats. 

They worship a deity called Waghoba: a leopard god that’s both defender and protector of the jungle. Warlis’ flower garlanded shrines feature stone or wood painted with leopards, whilst Waghoba temples display the vividly painted idol of a big cat. These forest guardians even host an annual festival celebrating their feline friends. As pragmatic as they are spiritual, Warli communities also adopt a common-sense approach by keeping children – who are more vulnerable to leopard attacks – safely indoors after 6pm.

Leopards Squeezed For Space

But this peaceful coexistence risks being undermined by encroaching development, which has already swallowed up precious parcels of land in Aarey. The expansion of residential estates and roads, together with the razing of forest, are leaving leopards scrambling for space and cover that’s essential for camouflaging their distinctive rosette markings.

‘Leopards homing instinct is very strong. Much like a gang, the minute you remove one leopard, another leopard will take their place’

Last summer a leopard was seen strolling onto a studio set in Aarey Milk Colony’s Film City: home of Bollywood and Indian Cinema. Meanwhile, the controversial construction of a 25-acre car shed – to maintain the Mumbai Metro Line 3’s metro coaches – has resulted in the felling of 2,600 trees in Aarey according to reporting by the Hindustan Times in 2019.

Pendharkar argues that relocating the city’s big cats is not a solution to resolving any human-leopard conflict. ‘There was a time when leopards were being caught [in Mumbai] and taken 60 miles away and released. One GPS tracked leopard walked back home [over four long weeks], only to be killed in a road accident on the highway.

‘Leopards homing instinct is very strong. Much like a gang, the minute you remove one leopard, another leopard will take their place.’

A big cat that’s already established in a semi-urban environment poses less of a threat than an outsider because it’s already habituated to humans. Moreover, leopards have as much right, if not more, to exist in SGNP and Aarey Milk Colony as the people who reside here. ‘We need to make it easier for humans to live with them and vice versa,’ Pendharkar adds.

A Fragile Future

a leopard walking in an alleyway between houses in Mumbai
A leopard walking the streets of Mumbai where Aarey Milk Colony is the unofficial buffer zone of Sanjay Gandhi National Park

But cohabitation relies on maintaining a delicate balance, one that Pendharkar fears could be destabilised by a lack of forest continuity and garbage management (which attracts rats and dogs) and the new Metro Car Shed. Its construction has already fragmented some of Aarey’s green cover, and longer-term Pendharkar is concerned that it could pollute a vital river source used by leopards. 

These big cats could have an even bigger problem if the Maharashtra Government’s plans to curb the steadily rising population of leopards through sterilisation is actioned state-wide. 

In more positive news, this January, the same state government announced it would be expanding Aarey’s already established green zone by 326 acres, guaranteeing a higher level of protection to its indigenous inhabitants, and, in theory, its free-roaming leopards. 

There are also plans afoot to build a safe wildlife corridor by elevating part of Mumbai’s Ghodbunder Road; a traffic choked state highway that’s already claimed the lives of several leopards, including a three-year-old male in 2022. 

These remarkably resilient animals have already proven that a leopard can change its spots. It’s high time humans followed suit. The sooner people wake up to the fact that they’re invading the habitat of these magnificent big cats’, and not the other way round, the better.

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