Cat’s Cradle

The killer leopards of suburban Mumbai

Inside the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. PAROMA MUKHERJEE
01 September, 2013


ON A FRIDAY in November last year, Sita Pagay excused herself from her sister’s home after dinner. She strolled out under the amla trees at the outskirts of Maroshi Pada inside Aarey Milk Colony in Mumbai’s north-western suburbs. The pada, which consists of several drab-looking huts and a dirt path, is where 55-year-old Pagay had lived her entire life, sweeping and mopping the luxury homes surrounding her hamlet in one of Mumbai’s fast-growing suburbs, Goregaon East. It was edging close to 8.30 now, and night had erased the last dashes of red from the sky, blanketing the small, forested community in darkness. Around Pagay, the November air was warm and dry as she squatted to susu behind her sister’s house. She felt secure squatting under the cover of the rustling sheets and hanging clothes, long accustomed to relieving herself in that spot. She never saw the cold, yellow eyes of the leopard peering at her from just beyond the trees.

It is difficult to say how long the eyes of the female cat had been studying Pagay from behind those amla trees. It is conceivable that she had been stalking the area since dusk, hoping to find some canine or a wild pig to kill and eat. More likely, the leopard was simply passing through the outskirts of Maroshi Pada as Pagay strolled into view. It would have been difficult for her to know that the creature she was seeing was even human. Crouched in that squatting position, Pagay could have been any other animal of a similar height—a monkey, dog, possibly even a fawn. But the cat could discern vulnerability, which was all that she needed to know.

The leopard sprang upon Pagay in a flash; her long fangs, evolved over millions of years to kill with precision, sank into the thin wall of flesh covering the woman’s warm throat. Her claws stabbed into Pagay’s torso, turning slightly before locking firmly into place. Blood filled the cat’s jaws, and her body and mind surged with the familiar sensations of pleasure and reward she had come to associate with a successful kill. Pagay, for her part, did not die instantly. Summoning every last shred of life inside of herself, she opened her mouth to scream for help. The only sound that likely would have followed, however, was that of gurgling blood. As the leopard dragged her dying body softly into the woods, Pagay flailed hopelessly. If she had looked desperately back and forth for anyone in the pada who could help her, her eyes might have rested on Ganesh Kharyadi, her nephew, who was relaxing outside his home. She might have desperately tried to call his name. But it would have been impossible; her vocal cords had been torn apart.

Kharyadi, a 26-year-old construction worker, did not see his favourite aunt being dragged to the slaughter, but intuited something had happened, and turned toward the forest. There, he saw only the laundry at first, waving lightly in the breeze. Off to the right, he saw the thin, flexible branches of the trees shuddering in rhythmic whooshes, opening briefly and then closing together again in perfect stillness. The strange repetition of the movement unnerved him. It was unlike anything he had seen before in this pada, and he knew the area well. Ganesh’s father, Vishnu Kharyadi, 60, however, knew it even better. As the elder Kharyadi emerged outside his home for a smoke, Ganesh touched his father’s shoulder, and directed his attention to the branches of the moving forest.

Father and son stepped cautiously toward the disturbance. They did not know what it was that they were tracking, but the men saw drops of blood dotting the path, and followed it. The elder Kharyadi remarked to his son that whatever it was had either been wounded, or had been hunting a thing that was now dead. The trail in front of them ended, and they arrived at a clearing. There, under the light of the moon, both father and son saw the leopard for the first time. The beast sat perched on a rock surrounded by tall grass, enriched that season by a late and lingering monsoon. She stared at the men, unflinching, her golden face ruddy with torn flesh. Beneath her, Sita lay splayed on the ground. Vishnu called to the men and women of his pada. “Wagh!” he screamed. “Wagh!”

Within a span of about 15 minutes, ten or so shrieking neighbours descended upon the clearing, circling the leopard. These people beat sticks and pans to make noise. One of them held a torch. As a rule, human beings frightened the animal. She disliked loud sounds and creatures that travelled in packs. She hissed at them to go away from her kill, but it was useless. Without having had the opportunity to fully enjoy her catch, the leopard reluctantly climbed off her rock, and then shot back into the dark forest just behind the clearing. Pagay’s body, now in the hands of friends and family, was brought back to the pada. Her sister, who had been pacing nervously outside of her home, wailed in despair at the sight of what was left of her.

Seven-eighths pure forest, one-eighth civilisation, and dotted at its corners with the five-star Westin Hotel and several ultramodern apartment complexes, Aarey Milk Colony is a wilderness encased by the plasticised rim of everyday suburbia. The death of Sita Pagay is one of many leopard attacks that have taken place here, pushing the surreal contradictions of life in this Mumbai suburb into the pages of local tabloids.

| TWO |

TODAY, AAREY MILK COLONY is owned and managed by the Maharashtra government’s Dairy Development Department, who acquired the land in 1949. The vast stretch of greenery is still a milk-producing centre, as it was over half a century ago, but it also represents a weekend picnic spot for locals, and an open space to construct Bollywood film sets. The colony is home to many small tribal padas, several of which have been around long before Europeans ever thought of invading India. Maroshi Pada is just such a place. Pagay and her sister had grown up around leopards as children, at a time when their attacks were relatively unheard of.

There are also illegal “non-tribal” slums inside the colony that house people from as far away as Madhya Pradesh and Bangladesh, who come to Mumbai in search of work. Locals and wildlife experts both say that leopards more frequently target these places. Chandunushaya Jadhav, a tribal resident of Aarey, has a theory about the leopards’ preference for outsider flesh.

On the day we spoke, it was unbearably hot, and Jadhav sat under a roof made of scrap metal, smoking a Monte Carlo cigarette, airing out the heat and irritation caused by his prosthetic leg. The 63-year-old retiree said that he was seeing more leopards in recent years than when he was a child. He said that his mother taught him to always respect the power and beauty of waghs. He also playfully assured me that his missing leg was caused by a violent accident he incurred while working for Aarey’s Water Department, and was not the result of a leopard attack. But after I mentioned Sita Pagay’s story to him, Jadhav seemed disturbed. He claimed to have witnessed the mutilation of several transient neighbours in his lifetime, including the severe mauling of a ten-year-old Muslim boy back in 2004, whose father had come briefly from “somewhere up north” to work in Aarey as a painter. He said that attacks on tribal residents were rare, though.

“The leopards pass over people like me,” he told me as he drew a second cigarette from the pack. “They can smell where we come from.”

Sita Pagay’s death popped up in recurrent news briefs during a strange and frightening time, the period between July 2012 and February 2013, when leopards abruptly started hunting human beings throughout the Mumbai suburbs for no apparent reason at all. It was one more cycle of leopard-on-man violence, which occurs on and off in Mumbai’s suburbs, mystifying experts and terrifying the city each time. As a resident of Goregaon East, I learnt about the phenomenon from tabloids like the Mumbai Mirror. Friends emailed me articles about leopards mauling people just a stone’s throw from my apartment, using jokey subject headings like “Sleep Tight”. My wife was pregnant with our first child at the time, and the idea of giant cats disembowelling residents next door made my stomach tremble with fear.

No one is entirely sure what starts these recurring cycles of man–animal conflict here in one of the world’s largest and busiest cities, or what stops them. Just now, the city has entered a watch-and-wait period regarding leopard violence. On 16 July, the parents of a group of children attending a municipal school in Aarey Milk Colony began requesting transfers. The children said they had seen leopards stalking them just outside their classrooms. The leopards hadn’t attacked anyone, at least not yet, and this news story remained relegated to the chattering background of a few local newspapers. In two months, if the fears of these students, by some distant chance, become justified, the familiar JurassicPark level of paranoia will subsume our neighbourhood once again.

People have often assumed that leopard-related deaths occur constantly or semi-regularly, rather than in these occasional phases. The reality is that while leopards have always been around human beings in this city, they have not always treated them as prey. The trend of leopards hunting humans is relatively new, and coincides with the burst in population around these forested areas of Mumbai that started about a quarter of a century ago. We now understand that more people living in the suburbs equates to more leopard-related deaths. The panoramic view from the 18th-floor dining hall of the Westin Hotel will tell you that there is no end in sight to the trend. From Goregaon East to Borivali East, the suburban horizon is crowded with tall yellow cranes, spinning blue cement mixers, and half-finished buildings speckled with climbing panes of mirrored glass.

Residents of these areas now fear that leopards are descending into human neighbourhoods for the sole purpose of gorging on human flesh. But the opposite is true—humans have been moving aggressively onto their land. The leopards have lived here since before Mumbai was Bombay, and before Bombay even had a name on a map. The presence of big cats in northern Mumbai traces back to a time before this place was a city, or even a single land mass. The Oberoi Mall, with its Pizza Hut and its routine showings of 3D comic book movies provides us with a false sense of permanence. But people didn’t start civilising these suburbs until the late 1970s.

The mental image of bloodthirsty cats slinking from the trees onto suburban terraces to snatch and kill babies is often propagated by the city’s English and Hindi tabloids, which tend to give the attention-grabbing predators starring roles in their editions. Wildlife experts in the region typically have multiple journalists calling them every week, or in some cases every day, hoping to hear about a new attack or sighting that they can transform into a hair-raising headline. Even the most basic details of stories are often misrepresented. Sita Pagay, for example, was called “Baban Pagay” in Mumbai Mirror’s report:

“A 55-year-old woman died after being mauled by a leopard in Aarey Colony late on Friday night, the fourth such incident this year. Baban Pagay, who lived with her sister in [the] tribal hamlet Maroshi Pada, had stepped out of her chawl to relieve herself around 10.15 pm when the big cat attacked her, dragging her around 300 metres away into a field…”

Nothing in the article mentions how this might have been prevented, or the degree to which the victim’s neighbours should be concerned about further attacks. The only impression that these pieces give residents is that the leopards have arrived, and they are here to eat you and your family.

The probability of getting eaten by a leopard is significantly less than getting killed in traffic here, but cars don’t fuel nightmares in quite the same way as killer jungle cats. The Forest Department puts the overall number of leopard attacks on humans during that July 2012 to January 2013 window at roughly seven. That number only accounts for serious injuries, and fatalities. Less violent attacks during that time could have likely gone unreported, particularly in poorer areas, such as the obscure tribal hamlets located deeper inside Sanjay Gandhi National Park, the sprawling wildlife sanctuary that lies entirely within Mumbai’s city limits, where such conflicts have become a part of everyday life. Those areas are particularly hard to track because, among other things, their very existence is technically illegal according to the Maharashtra Private Forest (Acquisition) Act of 1975. Strong-arm political groups like the Shiv Sena, eager to accrue support, often pump the electricity and water supplies into such areas under the auspices of charity for the poor.

But during those months, as the gory headlines kept flooding the papers, it seemed as if the attacks would never end. The final death in that particular cycle happened on 26 January 2013, when a 12-year-old boy was found gutted, and soaking in a puddle of his own blood. He had been squatting down to defecate in Aarey Milk Colony when he was snatched away by the jaws of a leopard. The animal believed to have been responsible was then seized by the Forest Department, as usual. After a few tense months of watching and waiting, the situation became relatively peaceful again. Subsequently, there have been numerous sightings of leopards, such as the one those school kids saw in Aarey this July; a leopard who slaughtered a dog in the lobby of an apartment complex in Mulund in June; and another that appeared in a Borivali housing complex in May—all of these have engendered the fear of leopard violence, without any actual attacks on humans. Without imminent violence, seasoned suburbanites find it possible to actually go on with their days as they always have, pretending that the carnivorous cats are not perpetually living in their midst.

Though humans have coexisted with leopards for decades, government officials still don’t have cohesive answers for how to deal with the situation. First, there is the matter of jurisdiction. A few hours after Sita Pagay died, when police and other officials arrived on the scene, they argued over whose responsibility it was to handle the situation: was Pagay’s death a matter for the Forest Department or other government agencies of the city, commonly referred to as territorial? Aarey Milk Colony, just one lonely paved road away from Sanjay Gandhi National Park, is often treated as a logistical no man’s land by government agencies.

Next, there is the matter of removing the dangerous cats from human populations. In the case of Pagay’s death, the Forest Department eventually took responsibility for the leopard, and captured her a few days later and then released her into the national park. But animal rights advocates questioned whether they had taken in the right cat, and whether or not she had left any cubs unattended in the brush. A week later, they said, the likelihood of a leopard attack would be more or less the same.

Finally, there is the matter of compensating the families of attack victims. The policy of the Maharashtra state government is to give the family of the deceased Rs 2 lakh for their loss. But like so many well-meaning schemes spawned from the bowels of Indian bureaucracy, the execution is flawed. The Pagay family, for example, has not received any compensation.

“My mother was a good woman, the kind of person who built bridges in this community,” said Ramesh Pagay, 35, Sita Pagay’s eldest son, who works as a film processor in Goregaon East’s large entertainment industry. “We are still waiting for our two lakhs from this government.”

Their sum has never been awarded because Sita Pagay was the second wife in a polygamous marriage. It is not uncommon for undocumented polygamy to exist within the tribal communities that border the forests here, making the right of compensation difficult to prove with paperwork. When I called his office, Torad Mal, a Range Forest Officer with the Maharashtra State Wildlife Department, acknowledged that the family would not receive anything for their loss until they turned over the proper documents. He also expressed sympathy over the situation. “There is no one to protect those people,” Mal said. “They’re all completely on their own.”

But to Pagay’s family, there is no consolation to be found in Mal’s pity. The forests where their family had happily lived for generations had suddenly turned against them, and nothing could explain, or justify, it. The day after the attack, Pagay’s son, nephew and sister took what was left of her mutilated body to Bhagwati Municipal Hospital in the neighbouring suburb of Borivali where she was duly declared dead.


MIHIR DAS, 88, walks around with a cane these days. His thick plastic glasses magnify his eyes, the side effect of an octogenarian’s deteriorating vision. Das considers himself to be among the first settlers of the Mumbai suburbs, a fact that historians will dispute. But having lived in Goregaon for a little over 25 years, there are very few things that can startle him. “You used to be able to open your window here and the only thing you would hear from sunrise to sunset was birdsong,” said Das, shaking his head and pointing to the panoramic view from the window of his apartment. “Today it’s just more cars and more construction.”

Das knew firsthand of the leopards of Goregaon long before the city’s tabloid readers did. He bought his flat here during the 1980s, a time when many of South Bombay’s old guard started looking to the suburbs as a quiet place to retire. A director for Bharat Petroleum, Das, along with a few others from the firm, including my late father-in-law, purchased flats in the same building for a sum of Rs 3 lakh. Today, these apartments sell for well above a crore.

Things were radically different when he first moved to Goregaon East, Das told me. Today, apartment buildings stick out between every available inch of forest. “Some of the new buildings are ugly,” he said. “Some are even uglier.”

Smooth gray slabs of plastic stick out from building tops, serving as cell phone towers to the thousands of pedestrians down below. Das worries about the radiation. The sky here was cleaner 25 years ago. Back then, the area behind the building was not completely different from those damp, cool, endlessly reaching arms of brilliant green in Aarey Milk Colony. And it was through his window, with its panoramic view of a pristine natural world, that Das remembers seeing his first leopard, and realising that he and his friends were trespassing on someone else’s land. “I used to own a Doberman back then, and one day my dog kept howling at this window,” Das said. “And when I looked outside, there was a leopard perched in between those trees. I was terrified.”

He filed a report with local officials. A wildlife rescue team from Sanjay Gandhi National Park was dispatched to remove the cat. Capturing leopards today has evolved into a somewhat humane sport involving raw meat and tranquilisers, but back then, stray dogs were used as bait to draw the cats into captivity. Das recalls a steel cage with retractable doors that was set up just behind the building, near the entrance to the forest. A howling stray dog was taken from a nearby street corner, and tied to the bars inside the cage. “The poor dog howled all night because it knew that the leopard was out there in the trees,” Das said. “No one in the building could sleep a wink. It was just an awful, mournful howl. Horrible—the sound of a dog waiting to be killed.”

According to Das, the leopard finally overcame its fear of the cage and went for the live bait at around three in the morning. The gates of the cage clamped down behind him, and the dog was mauled. Das’s wife recalls a softer version, though: she says a separate, retractable gate spared the street dog’s life. Either way, the leopard was captured and released into Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The park covers 107 square kilometres of northern Mumbai and borders the areas of Goregaon, Borivali, Mulund and Thane—but it is a place where the captured leopard may never even have lived before.

Today, the muggy streets of Goregaon East often feel like the last place on earth where anyone should come across a jungle cat. And yet wildlife experts stress that these leopards are never going away. Royal Palms, an apartment complex with luxury suites that borders Aarey Milk Colony has, according to their security staff, had a resident leopard living there on and off for several years now. Such sightings occur on a monthly basis, and inevitably set off a flurry of panic. New fences and gates are established. Pressure is placed upon authority figures at all levels of government to do something. And newspaper reporters arrive, exacerbating the concerns of residents. But if it seems strange to imagine a carnivorous jungle cat strolling through a lobby decked out with LCD TVs and laptop computers, try to imagine what it looks like to the cat that suddenly finds these objects lodged in a place his instincts tell him should have nothing but plant life for shelter, spotted deer for food, and a clear, star-spotted night sky for lighting the way.

| FOUR |

SUNIL LIMAYE, THE 51-YEAR-OLD DIRECTOR of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, is a barrel-chested man with thick forearms and a baritone voice. If anyone could wrestle a jungle cat to the ground, it looks like it would be him. When I called Limaye, he was eager to get his side of the story out to the press. He wants to impress upon people that it is not the job of the park to eliminate leopards, or even prevent them from living in the suburbs. He likes to tell people that by living in this region of the city, Mumbaikars are making the choice to live among jungle cats.

I met Limaye in the park on a Friday afternoon when families were milling about his office, taking photos of spotted deer and eating spiced mango slices sold by vendors. He spoke to me in between taking short breaks to attend to the complexities of park business. “People come to me asking for help, saying ‘the leopard is on my land,’” Limaye explained, as he signed off a stack of documents. “That is factually incorrect. It is you who have moved yourselves onto his land. If you do not want to live in the presence of these cats, the only choice you have is to not live here at all.”

Limaye has gained a reputation as a hero in these parts because of the efficiency with which he has handled leopard sightings since he began his tenure in 2011. Around the same time, he established a 24-hour emergency centre to deal with the panic that often follows a leopard sighting, as well as a system of cameras in Sanjay Gandhi National Park to track the leopards based on their spots.

While leopards might be afraid of people, human habits are actually drawing the cats closer to us rather than driving them away. One of those habits is the disposal of non-vegetarian trash. “Humans leave behind a tremendous amount of garbage,” Limaye explained. “Things like chicken bones attract dogs and pigs. That in turn attracts the leopards who want to eat those animals. It’s like their version of McDonald’s fast food.”

The increased number of humans, therefore, means an increased number of easy prey for leopards, which explains the rise in sightings—but not necessarily the cycle of gory attacks or deaths. It is a part of the leopard mythology that Limaye is at a loss to explain.

Vidya Athreya, a wildlife conservationist who lives in Pune, co-founded Mumbaikars for Sanjay Gandhi National Park along with Limaye in 2011. The non-profit group is composed of volunteer wildlife experts, and works to resolve man–leopard conflicts by gathering information about the city’s animal population. They also study how leopards interact with humans in an effort to reduce conflicts. She took a break from conducting field research in Thane’s baking heat to speak with me over coffee.

Athreya has a theory to explain the mystery of why leopards abruptly start hunting human beings. She and other experts call it translocation. When leopards run afoul of people in Mumbai by prowling too close to densely populated areas, it has long been the practice of the Forest Services to trap the cats, and drop them into Sanjay Gandhi National Park. There, leopards are theoretically free to live peacefully, drinking from the region’s natural supply of water, and eating from the park’s plentiful supply of spotted deer. According to Athreya, however, translocation fails to take into account an animal’s delicate psychology.

“You have to understand how stupid people can really be with animals here,” Athreya explained. “I’ll give you an entirely different example: people here have a superstition that owls bring bad luck in India. So someone in downtown Mumbai, he sees an owl on his property, and he reports it. He says, ‘Get this thing out of here.’ Then no one knows what to do with the owl, so it is dropped into Sanjay Gandhi National Park, a place the owl has never been before. Of course the poor owl goes completely mad, losing its feathers and so on. The same can be said of leopards. You put it in this strange place where it will get lost, possibly having left behind its cubs, and it is more likely to turn violent.”

Athreya stressed that these cats are not wired to hunt human beings, and that their change in behaviour is directly related to an increase in development taking place in spots where nature did not plan for us to live. “Leopards are scared as hell of us,” Athreya said. “They don’t like the noises humans make. From their point of view, we are more likely to kill them than the other way around.”

Athreya noted that in many rural parts of India, man has lived with leopards for centuries without the kind of conflict currently going on here in Mumbai. She delineated the difference between two types of leopard attacks—accidental and deliberate. The latter, she explained, is, or should be, extremely rare.

She also identified the common misconception among Mumbai residents about man-leopard violence. “Because of the newspaper headlines, people have this idea that leopard attacks have been happening for so many years,” Athreya said. “There were a rash of violent attacks between 2003 and 2006 and then they stopped. Then for six years there was nothing. In 2012, they started again.”

There is no realistic plan in the works to help leopards and human beings cohabitate in absolute peace. The only thing that people like Athreya believe can be done is reduce the incidents of violence as best as possible. She, along with her colleagues, has become a strong advocate of reducing the translocation of leopards, and claimed to me that the technique has been all but eliminated under Limaye’s tenure as director. Sometimes, however, authorities have very little recourse but to remove a leopard from an urbanised area and then drop it into the park, because the call for removal becomes too great. When wealthier people complain about leopard sightings, pressure increases on authorities to act. Such is the case with the aforementioned cat that appeared in Borivali this month. It was captured and brought into the park by Limaye’s emergency staff, despite warnings from animal activists that the animal had been separated from her cubs.

Dr Sanjiv B Pinjarkar, a veterinary officer for the Forest Department, often leads Limaye’s team to areas where leopards have been sighted, for the purpose of capturing and relocating the cats to safety. He is small, bespectacled, and shy—unlike his boss Limaye, Pinjarkar is the last person you would imagine taking on snarling beasts of the wild. But over his 20 years of service as a veterinarian, he and his team have removed leopards from film school classrooms, trees, apartment terraces, and flour mills. Earlier this year, Pinjarkar and his staff were dispatched on what was a typical mission for them, to a location in the beach resort community of Srivardhan in Maharashtra, far out of the jurisdiction of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, where an adult male cat had wandered onto the second floor of a bungalow. There, the cat had gashed open the torso of a 21-year-old man living in the house with his family. “By the time we arrived in Srivardhan, thousands of people surrounded the bungalow to get closer to the action,” he explained. “The fascination surrounding leopards draws a lot of onlookers.”

Pinjarkar and his men lined ladders on either side of the bungalow to shoot the cat with tranquiliser guns through the building’s windows. It was decided that facing the cat directly up the stairs would prove to be a fatal strategy. But just as Pinjarkar began scaling the ladders, something occurred to him. “I realised that the cat might lunge at me through the window,” he said. “It could have sent the ladder falling backwards into the crowd, killing me.”

Pinjarkar stopped his approach short to tie the ladders securely to the sides of the bungalow. It was a two-minute procedure that saved his life. “The cat was pacing along a hallway, with me and one of my men on either side of it with tranquiliser guns aimed at him through the windows,” he recalled. “No sooner did I appear at eye level with the cat, he lunged forward with his claws drawn, rattling the ladder and sending me falling down several pegs.”

When the leopard lunged at Pinjarkar’s window, his colleague fired the tranquiliser into the cat’s hide. After 20 minutes of pacing, the animal finally crawled down the stairs of the bungalow, where it fell asleep. The leopard was then released in a forest near Srivardhan, where local authorities said that he was born.

“Even with our equipment, this job is very dangerous,” reflected Pinjarkar. “The men who work with me are very brave. Some of them have captured as many as 160 cats without any fanfare.”

Pinjarkar’s team ranges from four to seven men on a given day, and on the day that I interviewed him, I met a few of them. One of them, Mukesh More, 45, a heavyset man with a hard face, wearing camouflage pants, stood over the interview the entire time with his arms folded. He listened politely, but it was clear that he was waiting for his turn to talk. More once worked as an animal keeper for hire, handling tigers used in circuses and zoos, before eventually joining Pinjarkar’s men over a decade ago.

“Please tell your readers that I have safely caught hundreds of leopards in my life,” More said during a lull in the conversation. “Not once have I received a raise from this government.”

But underpaid daredevils like More who go eye-to-eye with killer cats might be among the few things to stand between tribals like the late Sita Pagay and a killer leopard’s fangs. Unlike flats like Mihir Das’s, or seaside bungalows, their homes are situated in open areas surrounded by the kind of tall grass that makes ideal camouflage for hunters.

| FIVE |

THE MORE I LEARNED ABOUT LEOPARD CONFLICTS, the more I wondered about how tribals and slum-dwellers were protected. I contacted Krishna Tiwari, 38, the founder of an NGO called Forest & Wildlife Conservation Centre. I suggested that we meet in the Oberoi Mall, to which Tiwari grimaced in total disgust. He said he only has his chai in the tribal areas. He detests malls, he said. He hates Starbucks. “I can’t eat in a food court without feeling sick,” he told me. Instead, he picked me up on his motorbike and drove off down the highway, away from the shops and billboards, and into the wilderness.

When I asked him about his work, Tiwari smiled back at me through his thick moustache as if there was nothing in the world he would rather be doing than riding his bike through the forest in the shimmering pre-monsoon heat. He currently runs a project called “Save the City Forests”, which, among other things, aims to help protect disenfranchised people from leopard violence by raising awareness of how to deal with the cats when they enter human populations. Everyday, he runs his motorbike through padas, tacking posters up in central locations like big trees next to communal homes. The roads he travels to get to these places are bumpy, shadowy, and strewn with obstacles. When I rode behind him I felt extremely nauseous, and asked him if he had been in many accidents lately. “Sure, of course,” he said casually, and without further elaboration.

Tiwari’s posters show the images of one man squatting, and another standing. A dog and a monkey stand next to the squatting man, equalling his height. A leopard stalks the group of images. The message is clear: if you squat in forested areas, the leopard will struggle to tell you apart from the smaller animals it typically sees as prey. On the bottom of the posters was a number to call if a leopard appeared.

“When you stand upright, the leopard will fear you,” Tiwari explained to me over a dark cup of chai made in one of the tribal settlements. “That is why leopards attack people who are going to the toilet, and also why they prefer smaller women, and children.”

It was easy to understand Torad Mal’s warning that people like Sita Pagay are “on their own”. As Tiwari’s bike charged across the diverse landscapes of Goregaon and Borivali, wealthy bungalows gave way to the slums and tribal hamlets that support them with their labour. The difference between the areas could not be starker. The bungalows were shielded by metal fences, and secured with surveillance cameras. The other homes were open, and surrounded by mounds of garbage left behind by rich and poor alike. We rode past a film set, where a model of what looked like the Gateway to India was being replicated for a Bollywood film. Behind the set, pigs and pariah dogs rooted through a sea of rotting food, empty bottles, and that foul smelling green slime that oozes through Mumbai’s more unsanitary areas.

Deeper into the forests of Aarey Milk Colony, residents were even less secure. At literally every stop we made, someone had spotted a leopard within the last month. Some reported that leopards had been pacing back and forth on top of their tin roofs only a few days earlier, while others claimed to have seen them peering into homes at children, chickens or dogs from beyond the area’s tall grass. Tiwari was comfortable talking with the residents, and skilled at conveying the bullet points of his mission with ease. He nailed a poster to a prominent tree in each pada, and gave a speech about what to do in the event of an inevitable leopard sighting. Parents were warned not to allow their children to wander outside without supervision, especially after the monsoon, when the tall grass gets taller, and leopards become more difficult to see. Would-be heroes were warned against charging the cats with weapons. It is a battle they are destined to lose, Tiwari told the residents sternly.

At Bhurakhar Pada, located in the centre of Aarey Milk Colony, Suman Gavit, a mother of four, looked particularly perturbed by Tiwari’s lecture. The children around her continued to laugh and play with the chickens and cows scattered around her open home. She told Tiwari in hushed tones that two weeks ago a leopard sat outside her home for several hours one night, refusing to move from the premises. The cat was just watching them, the woman explained. He would not go away. Since that night, several of the chickens on her farm had disappeared, causing Gavit to fear that the leopard was still lurking in the shadows, waiting for the time to strike.

“We used to go out at night here,” Gavit told Tiwari, her voice rising with fear. “Now, we don’t.”