If it hadn't been for the fearless actions of people in Aarey Colony on a serene September evening, four-year-old Ayush Yadav could have died.
Hearing the child's screams, locals rushed out of their homes and used sticks to attack a fully grown leopard, who was attempting to drag the boy into the night.
“Another few seconds and I would have lost my only child,” said Aarti Yadav, the toddler's mother.
The attack is one of eight reported in Mumbai's northwestern suburbs over the past month alone, sparking a debate on the future of the city's historic leopard population and spotlighting India's growing problem with animal-human conflict.
Approximately 50 leopards currently live in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) which dissects the north of the city. Although they are walled in, the leopards are expert climbers and are often spotted in the densely-populated surrounding neighbourhoods looking for food – usually choosing one of Mumbai's street dogs as prey.
The park plays an essential role in preserving Mumbai's historic leopard population, which outdates any human settlement.
A 2018 Indian government report found there are also only 12,852 of the cats left nationwide, a reduction of 90 percent since the 1900, due to poaching and habitat destruction.
“The forests of the SGNP provide an ideal habitat for the leopard. Besides it’s administrative boundary, the SGNP has connectivity with adjoining forests that allows leopards to migrate without disturbances,” says Dr Bivash Pandav, Director of the Bombay Natural History Society.
In 2002, there were 25 reported incidents, although this was an anomaly, as an influx of new leopards from surrounding forests led to competition over prey in the SGNP.
After a multi-actor panel was set up, involving local politicians, conservationists and the police, attacks soon stopped, attributed in part to an improved prey base in SNGP. Only a handful of attacks have since been recorded, all of which have been blamed on one particularly aggressive leopard in 2017.
Again, the authorities in Mumbai have blamed the attacks this month on one leopard and called for calm but the animal in question is still at large and social media is fuelling panic.
Two CCTV videos – one of a 69-year-old woman fighting off a leopard with a stick in the yard outside her home and another of a leopard leaping at, and narrowly missing, two people on a speeding motorbike – have been widely circulated.
Anger is rising among residents, many of whom demand the leopards be moved out of the SGNP and to a park further away from residential areas.
Others say the recent attacks could have been avoided if the authorities had listened to warnings from residents of more regular leopard sightings closer to their homes and had punished people erecting illegal hotels, office blocks and housing on the big cats’ territories.
“These are mammals and they have their own particular zones. But, there has been a population surge in Aarey Colony, more vehicles are coming in and out and an unregulated growth in slum housing. It wasn’t happening before – we had our space and they had theirs but now there is a lot of encroachment,” said Gaurav Mishra, 21, a local resident.
SNGP and Indian Forest Service officials did not respond to requests for comment.
While Dr Pandav praised the authorities for the improvements they had made in restricting human-animal conflict since 2002, he said the recent attacks were evidence more could still be done.
“Better management of garbage will be key to reduce the foray of leopards into human habitation. Food and hospital waste should in no way be dumped out in the open, in the vicinity of the park,” added Dr Pandav, explaining stray dogs that feed on garbage in turn attract leopards.
“A proactive monitoring system using remote cameras to detect leopard presence along the park edges will also act as an early warning system.”
Maharashtra, the state of which Mumbai is the capital, recorded 88 deaths from human-animal conflict in 2020 – more than any previous year.
It is clear the leopards' future greatly divides opinion and a fatal attack or planned citizens' protests could ramp up the tension further.
Kavita Padher, 47, a staunch supporter of the big cat, lives on the hillside settlement of Charandev Para, on the outskirts of the city.
“I do not fear the leopards because they are like a member of the family to us, we see them as the protectors of the forest,” said Ms Padher, who is an adivasi, a member of India’s tribal population.
Many adivasi communities across India depend on the surrounding jungle to make a living through farming or selling forest produce, such as medicinal plants. Ms Padher told the Telegraph she would even regularly visit a local Hindu temple dedicated to leopard worship, believing the animal's survival would bring her family good fortune.
“At seven o’clock almost every day we see a leopard come into our village and it will roam around. It won’t attack the villagers, just the dogs,” said Ms Padher.
But, not everyone in Charandev Para is convinced. Tai Soma Shinwar, the settlement’s frail elder woman, who believes she is in her 70s, said it was only a matter of time until a child was attacked. Over 25 of the settlement’s dogs had fallen victim to leopard attacks in recent years, she said.
“The leopard comes much more frequently now than when I was younger. Our villagers no longer sleep outside and we have stopped going out after nightfall because of the leopards,” said Ms Shinwar.
“Now, most nights, I see the eyes of the leopard from outside my house. They shine like batteries in the dark, always on the lookout.”Internet Explorer Channel Network