Big Cat Diaries 1: Leopards on the Streets

November 4, 2018

"We had not descended far when the beam reflected back two cats’ eyes, like stationary fireflies against the black of the forest."

Indian leopard by Davidvraju [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Not long after sunset, during the brief tropical twilight, Krishna Tiwari and I looked down from the eastern flank of the Yeoor hills.  We scanned over the darkening forest, across the low roofs of the vast slum district of Hanumanagar and over to the high-rise apartments and offices of Thane and east Mumbai.  Lights were going on across the city, gradually at first, like the earliest, brightest stars at dusk, then suddenly the city was a Milky Way against the black forest below us and the slaty sky ahead of us.

I had just recorded a conversation with Krishna (part of the podcast at the end of this article).  We had walked up to a small forested escarpment in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, on the edge of Mumbai, because it was a place where leopards are regularly seen, and from where, after dark, they descend into the city, to stalk the rats and street dogs that roam the slums.

Mumbai from the Sanjay Gandhi national Park

When we had stopped recording, Krishna confessed that while we always stood a chance of seeing a leopard, we would need a huge slice of luck on any given visit, and I shouldn’t raise my hopes.  My main reason for being there was not to see leopards, though, but to interview people who live alongside them, to understand how the lives of people and big cats intertwine.

Resha Satesh at the Warli hamlet of Chunapada

I had amassed dozens of pages of notes and several hours of recordings– conversations with members of the Warli and Kokna tribes who dwell in the forest itself; and with activists like Krishna, working to keep people safe from leopards, and leopards safe from the perennial development pressure at the forest fringe.

Hanumanagar slum district, Mumbai

So a leopard sighting would have been a nice-to-have, but not essential for my project, and after a while we made our way down the hill and back towards the city.  Krishna was happy to navigate the steep, twisting, rocky path by moonlight, but I decided I needed the help of my head torch.  And that was how we came to see the leopard.  We had not descended far when the beam reflected back two cats’ eyes, like stationary fireflies against the black of the forest.  I knew straight away that I was looking at a leopard:  cats, from domestic moggies to tigers, have a characteristic way of moving their heads, and somehow that was evident just by seeing its eyes.  For a while it just stared back; from little I could make out of the lie of the land, it was lying low to the ground about thirty yards ahead of us, at the left edge of the path.

It never occurred to me that we were in any danger; I had, after all, spent the week speaking to people for whom even closer encounters are an everyday probability.  As the eyes moved off to the right and disappeared into the vegetation, I knew that our route might take us even closer to the animal.  But as Krishna explained, most people walk this path after dark with nothing more than a mobile phone torch aimed at their feet.  They never know when, and how often, they pass within feet of the forest’s apex predator.

Podcast:  conversations with activists and local communities living alongside the urban leopards of Mumbai (photo:  Laurence Rose)

My visit to Mumbai was part of a writing and research project that also included interviews with livestock herders living alongside the endangered Asiatic lion in rural Gujarat.  Further reports will be posted here in the coming weeks.