Mumbai, Oct. 10: Predators are great levellers.
The residents of Raheja Vihar, an affluent housing complex in Powai, are in a state of shock. On Wednesday evening, a leopard scaled the 18-foot-high wall of the complex, jumped inside and attacked a five-year-old boy. As the animal failed to climb the wall back with the boy’s body held between its teeth, it dumped him on a tree and jumped over.
The boy, Anmol Shah, was dead by then. The tragedy has sent tremors down the entire neighbourhood, which is adjacent to Hiranandani Gardens, one of the most prosperous residential areas and a popular film shooting spot in the city.
So far leopard attacks, though frequent, had claimed only the poor — the “encroachers” and slumdwellers — living on the fringes of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and the Powai forests. These are dense hilly forest grounds only a few kilometres away from residential areas, sometimes engulfing them.
The attacks have killed seven to eight persons a year from the slum areas on the slopes of the National Park hills. Recently, a leopard even killed a worker in a building under construction near Andheri, a bustling suburb that is outside the forest area. But with the terror moving inside a prosperous home for the first time, the authorities have sat up and taken notice.
The forest department has asked residents of complexes after the attack in the area to put up chain links on their wall to prevent similar strikes. A trap has been laid at the spot where the attack took place.
The forest department and environmental activists have asked residents to take some basic precautions. “We must ensure that children don’t play outside after dark as the leopard would usually strike after dark,” says environmental activist Devi Goenka, a resident of Hiranandani Gardens. “There are officially 40 leopards in the forests here and Sanjay Gandhi National Park, but the figure could be higher.”
Silence is reigning in Raheja Vihar. Not a child has ventured out to play since Wednesday evening — their parents have stopped them. Anmol, a junior kindergarten student, was playing with his friend Priyank around 7.30 pm when the leopard struck. Priyank, who started to scream and alerted the watchmen, only remembers a big black cat pouncing on his friend. He doesn’t know Anmol is dead.
Some residents are angry that such an incident could happen. “Anmol was an only child. His parents are very young. It is an unbelievable tragedy,” says Chandana Bakshi, a resident. “This is the first time that an attack has taken place inside our complex, but we all knew of the presence of leopards. We could have taken some precautions before,” she says.
“Our society members have met since then and ensured that barbed wire be put up on the wall,” she adds.
The residents say that the leopards are often sighted during the day and very close to human habitation. “Last Sunday, when I went out for a walk near the forest, I saw a leopard on the road. There was a distance of about 40 feet between us and we watched each other closely. Then he grew bored and left,” Goenka said. A leopard was trapped in the IIT campus nearby, a popular haunt for the animals.
Goenka says the animals don’t set out to attack humans, which in their eyes are full-grown “adult human beings on two legs”. Most of the attacks are on children and women because, apart from looking more vulnerable, the leopards can’t identify them as humans at the moment of attack. “Many of the slum-dwelling women go out into the darkness to relieve themselves. A leopard doesn’t consider a crouching body to be human and attacks.
“There are many quarries in the area that also attract the leopards,” says A.R. Bharati, deputy conservator of forests in charge of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, adding that the leopard menace cannot be contained easily.
Both Bharati and Goenka point fingers at the worst sufferers of the leopard attacks — the “encroaching” slumdwellers — as the root of the problem.
“Leopards are fond of dog meat,” says Bharati. “Slums and settlements on the fringe of the forests mean garbage dumps forming in the areas. These attract the dogs. They, in turn, attract leopards.”
“The presence of the encroachers are a pressure on the wild life in the national park,” he adds.
Echoing Bharati, Goenka says that a boundary wall — which the high court has already ordered — around the entire forest area could be the most effective answer to the menace. That would involve relocating the “encroachers”, which is already a political issue with many parties having a stake in rehabilitation projects.
But with the many conflicts of interests, the projects are taking long to materialise. Though asked to relocate from time to time for having endangered forest life, the “encroachers” have no place to go.
Says Kallol Banerjee who lives near Raheja Vihar: “In our country we go to both extremes. The presence of encroachers is threatening wild life. At the same time, we are trying to protect wild life at the cost of humans.”