Since the past couple of decades, Maharashtras urban centres, notably Mumbai, Pune and Nashik, and semi-urban areas like Satara and parts of Vidarbha, have had to contend with the threats of wild animals straying out of their cramped habitats into residential neighbourhoods, leading to inevitable ‘man-animal conflicts’.
In recent times, the state has witnessed a surge in man-animal conflicts, with increasing human casualties, especially leopard attacks, in and around the concrete towny settlements.
From January to December 2022, there were a shocking 105 human deaths due to attacks by wild creatures, chiefly tigers and leopards, and the rest by other jungle residents.
In 2022, tigers burned bright to kill 77 people and leopards snuffed out 17 humans — with the maximum eight deaths in Nashik, six in Chandrapur, plus one each in Nagpur, Kolhapur and Thane, said Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) Mahip Gupta.
Recently, Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar had revealed the figures of such conflicts with the graph inching north in the past three years in the state — in 2019-20, 47 people were killed in attacks by wild animals, 80 in 2020-21, 86 in 2021-22, and 105 in 2022, the worst year for human deaths cause by wild animals.
Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) Secretary and wildlife conservationist Kishore Rithe said that besides tigers and leopards, the state reports other forms of man-animal conflicts, with gaurs killing four humans, wild boars and elephants (two each), besides sloth bears, foxes and even crocodile (one each) in 2022.
In Mumbai, the forests of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, the adjoining Aarey Colony, and the sprawling Film City and IIT-B campuses are the main leopard hotspots, though they have strayed far outside including on highways, in vehicles, buildings, bungalows or posh housing complexes.
There were around half a dozen conflicts with leopards, including at least two fatal involving kids, as the region is populated by an estimated 60-plus leopards, one of the largest urban concentrations of these spotted big cats in the country.
Presently, the highest risk from leopards is witnessed in the lush forested Satara region, and the adjoining sugarcane fields, besides adjoining Pune, according to Rohan Bhate, BNHS Governing Council Member and a Honorary Wildlife Warden.
“People’s encounters with leopards is growing. There are leopard sightings/rescue calls almost daily. We have rescued and reunited more than a dozen lost cubs with their mothers in the past four weeks alone,” said Bhate, who runs an NGO, Creative Nature Friends Society (CNFS).
Wildlife expert and former PCCF Sunil Limaye said humans continually stray into or encroach on wildlife territories though there are clear do’s and dont’s in place, particularly in the regions adjoining animal sanctuaries/reserves dotting the state.
Though terming the man-animal conflict as ‘not so good but not so bad either’, he said it is more for the humans to beware of the dangers lurking in the wild than to expect appropriate behaviour from the animals.
“Conflicts occur as humans trespass into their territories or the animals stray outside the jungles in search of food… For the past few years, there is concern about the growing menace of elephants romping here from Karnataka or Odisha, causing huge havoc on fertile farmlands and crops,” said Rithe.
“Besides, humans keep grabbing more and more space from wildlife, hinder wild animals on using their regular forest corridors or even chase them off when they are seen, leading to avoidable conflicts, often with casualties or fatalities,” Limaye explained.
Bhate recalled that over two decades ago, following a big leopard hazard, around 110 were trapped from the infested Nashik, tagged with tracking devices, and released in different forest regions of the state.
“Surprisingly, it was found that after some time, around a dozen had returned to Nashik, their original habitat! Leopards seem to have the ‘homing instinct’ and go back to their place of birth, including the cubs born in the sugarcane fields, which keep returning there frequently as they find it cozier with lot of big and small prey around, compared with the jungles,” said Bhate.
It has also been found that the survival rate of the cubs is increasing from around 40 per cent to 50 per cent or higher, female leopards which earlier used to give birth to 2-3 cubs are now delivering three-four cubs, adding to the population, he said.
State forest officials said that there are Primary Response Teams to warn people against entering forests during wildlife movements, or after dark, when the big cats are always on the prowl.
In case of any tragedies, there are the Rapid Rescue Teams whose clear objective is “to save both humans and animals”, though it is not always possible, said a forest officer from Yavatmal.
Experts regularly appeal for an all-round long-term strategy to reduce man-creature skirmishes, with the onus on humans to respond to the needs of animals and avoid confrontations in each other’s territories.
Hoping to give more ‘breathing space’ and ‘elbow room’ to the big and small wild animals, till 2022 Maharashtra has declared 52 wildlife sanctuaries/reserves across the state with plans to add seven more soon.
This has taken the physical area of protected regions up to 13,000 sq. km to secure the flora and fauna, especially in the territories adjacent to national parks/sanctuaries/reserves or the critical ‘jungle corridors’ linking them, said Mungantiwar.
In a laudatory move last year, the Maharashtra government hiked the compensations given to victims of all wildlife attacks, humans as well as their cattle or fowl and farm animals which are a source of livelihood.