The Sanjay Gandhi National Park is one of the largest national parks, within city limits, in the world. Notified in 1974, this 103.sq km park is home to over 285 species of birds and 21 leopards, as per the census taken in June last year, besides a plethora of other animals like deer, reptiles, amphibians and innumerable varieties of insects and plants. It also has the Tulsi and the Vihar lakes within its confines, thereby catering to ten per cent of the metro's water demand. It is also home to the 9,000 tribals in the 56 tribal settlements in the area. The last few years, however, has seen a spurt of leopard attack cases on residents of the ever-growing metropolis.

Experts, however, blame the attacks on mis-governance and even neglect on the part of the authorities. "There are areas within and around the park that should have been declared as part of the park, but were given by the state government to certain stake-holders for a specific purpose on certain conditions to keep the sanctity of the national park. Today, everybody has forgotten those conditions, which however, are now blatantly violated, thereby resulting in neglect of the park and the conflict," said Kishor Rithe, wildlife conservator and a member of the National Board of Wildlife.

'Green areas' around the national park are the Aarey Milk colony, Filmcity at Goregaon, Maharashtra Agriculture and Fruit Processing Corporation (Mafco, later taken back), defence land, and the Archaeological Survey of India (Kanheri caves). These stake-holders then build their infrastructure and access roads, sometimes without the mandated clearance from the NBWS. "Last week when I went there, I was surprised to see a newly constructed road at the park. When I asked who constructed it, I was told it was done by the Bombay Municipal Corporation (which supplies water from the Tulsi and Vihar lakes). Strangely, this never came to the NBWS standing committee," he said.

Tribal rights activist Vittal Lad blames the Mumbai and Thane Municipal Corporation for the conflict. "The area has a lot of illegal encroachments. There are residential complexes built dangerously close to the park. In addition, there was illegal stone quarrying near the park ten years ago, which affected the park immensely. We complained about several such activities. None of the activities would have been possible without the connivance of bureaucrats and politicians," he said.

Environmentalist Peeyush Sekhsaria concludes: "Human-wildlife conflict is often a management issue, even a governance issue. Huge quantities of unmanaged waste attract pigs and dogs, which in turn lures leopards. Conflict also happens when a crowd surrounds a leopard found in a human habitation area and the security forces (police, fire brigade, forest department) have the problem of managing the crowd rather than undertaking their work with respect to the animal," concludes.

He has been a part of the Urban National Parks in Emerging Countries and Cities (UNPEC), whose recent project seeks to study the human-animal conflict at four national parks — Tijuca (Brazil's Rio de Janeiro), Nairobi national park (Nairobi in Kenya), Table Mountain (Cape Town, south Africa) and of course the SNGP — within city limits.

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