A few cities in the world host large wild mammals in their neighborhood. Of these, one of the most well known is the Nairobi National Park adjoining Nairobi, one of the busiest cities in Kenya, where the city residents have large wildlife as their neighbors. The African big five, giraffes, zebras, cheetahs and several of Africa’s large wild mammals have all survived in the neighborhoods of this city.
Even in India, there are a few cities that host large mammals on their outskirts – Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore to name a few. Amongst these, Bangalore is perhaps unique as it hosts a variety of large wildlife within a few kilometers from the city center (say Vidhana Soudha). Elephant, gaur, sambar, leopard, sloth bear, wild dog and even a tiger have been reported from the outskirts of Bangalore. However, a common feature of all these cities is that they hold natural landscapes on their boundaries. Bangalore too has patches of rocky outcrops and scrub forests that continue to exist on the fringes.
Reports of livestock lifting by leopards are not uncommon in parts of the city outskirts where rural life continues to linger. Occasionally, the residents of apartment complexes on the southern side of the city, near the NICE highway, report leopard sightings. When such incidents are reported, the response is a demand to translocate (relocate) the animal. The forest department has translocated six leopards in the past five years from the city’s outskirts.
A sub-adult leopard walks in front of the camera traps after senior citizens have finished their evening walks at the same location.
Owing to our interest in large cats and on request of communities and the forest department, we initiated camera trapping on the city’s outskirts. Our study provided some wonderful insights into the lives of these spotted cats. Though we had a few leopards walking in front of our automatically triggered photo-documenting devices, at times, the sequence of images was more interesting. At one location, senior citizens walked past the camera traps for their evening walks and a few hours later, sub-adult leopards would trigger the same camera traps. A couple of kilometers away, young school children walked displaying their playful performances for the cameras, and a few hours later adult leopards would imperceptibly appear as the human activities drew to a close. 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 cover for the felid.
A sub-adult leopard walks past a garden light, after which local security personnel arrive on their night patrol.
Our spatial information on the leopard occurrence on the city’s outskirts seems to tell us a trend. Leopards mostly seem to occur within natural habitats, such as rocky outcrops and forest patches, from the northwest to the southern side of the city in a semi-circular form, but also use agricultural areas such as maize fields. The message seems to be clear. Leopards survive in areas where there is a mosaic of natural forests, rocky outcrops and sub-optimal habitats that provide temporary cover. They are certainly not living amidst a sea of humans, amidst residential and commercial buildings. I wouldn’t call them urban leopards. Natural habitats seem to be key for leopards’ survival.
A male leopard walks past a camera trap a few minutes after a father-son duo passes, riding a motorbike.
However, I wonder how long would these felines survive on the borders of this ever-growing city? Bangalore’s human population grew by 47% during 2001 and 2011, increasing it from 6.5 to 9.6 million, currently matching the population of the New York metropolitan area. The size of the city has increased over 300 percent in the last 20 years. Tens of villages and forest patches around the city have now been merged into the city council limits. Areas that meet the definition of forests have mostly made way for industries, housing complexes, and other developmental activities. Most of the natural habitat of leopards on the city’s outskirts may vanish eventually if concerted efforts are not made.
As urban areas expand, natural habitats of leopards shrink, resulting in local extinction, or they may survive if there is continuity to other natural habitats. For instance, leopards that existed in Turahalli forests have now blinked off, as this small reserved forest (2.5 km2) is now surrounded by housing complexes and its connectivity to the BM Kaaval Reserved Forest and further south to Bannerghatta National Park is severed. Such local extinctions have been documented well in this country’s history.
Urbanisation has encroached Bangalore’s outskirts and leopards have been losing ground.
Leopards will continue to exist in Bannerghatta National Park that adjoins the southern side of Bangalore city. However,the land around Bannerghatta is getting highly urbanized. The northern and western edges of the national park are already ensconced in a sea of development. So, leopards that live inside Bannerghatta could venture into urbanized areas due to easy access to domestic food sources, including dogs and livestock. Not an ideal situation either for the leopard or for the people. However, if you eliminate the forests in Bannerghatta, there would perhaps be no leopards in this area.
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. This will act as insurance for larger wildlife to survive in the long run in Bannerghatta. Going across the globe, the scenario in Nairobi National Park is no different. Part of the national park connects to other larger tracts of the woodland savannahs that continue for hundreds of square kilometers. Therefore, these natural habitats support the long-term subsistence of large mammals in this national park, and so would Bannerghatta.
Communities and leopards
For our work, it is also necessary that we interact with communities that share space with the spotted cats around Bangalore. We regularly carry out outreach activities to bring in awareness about leopards and ways to respond to leopard sightings in the vicinity. Many a times, wrong identification of animal tracks has led to commotion in communities, hence developing appropriate outreach material was very critical. The range of people we needed to speak to makes an interesting case study by itself. Retired professionals, security personnel, space research scientists, central security force personnel, students, construction workers, farmers, villagers; the list goes on. Its not the typical outreach target audience one would envision in wildlife conservation.
Outreach material that helps differentiate pugmarks of leopards from domestic dogs has helped reduce tensions due to misidentification of pug marks.
The responses of communities towards leopards are very varied. On the outskirts of Bangalore, two distinct communities share space with leopards. Educated professionals,who are not economically dependent on land or animal husbandry, but like to be away from the hustle-bustle of the city, hence reside in areas that have a mix of natural leopard habitats and agricultural landscape. Secondly, communities who reside in similar ecological landscapes but whose lifestyles are largely rural in nature, and continue to depend on farming and livestock for livelihoods. There seems to be better acceptability among people whose livelihoods does not depend on farming or livestock. Nonetheless, even these people were always anxious.
Simple posters with caricatures can depict ways to respond to leopard presence in highly human dense areas.
Bangalore is an ideal example where changing ecological, social and economic landscapes of the country demonstrate the altering fate of some of the wildlife species. Urban civilization and industrialization have invaded the city’s environs and leopards have been losing ground. Many of city’s former leopard habitats – Kengeri, Hebbal, J.P.Nagar, Turahalli are all now bustling residential, industrial or business hubs. Now a Google search for ‘J.P.Nagar’ ‘leopard’ lists out interesting results; Leopard Securities Services, Leopard Investments, Leopard hi-heel Suppliers, and, unfortunately, the former true leopards have made way for these ‘urban leopards’.