Posted by Richard Conniff on December 19, 2015
(Illustration: Andrew Holder, by permission)
My latest for The New York Times:
IT was tea break one afternoon this past May, in a business park in Mumbai, one of the world’s most crowded cities. The neighborhood was chockablock with new 35-story skyscrapers adorned with Greek temples on top. On the seventh-floor deck of one building, 20-something techies took turns playing foosball and studying the wooded hillside in back through a brass ship captain’s spyglass.
They were looking at a leopard, also on tea break, up a favorite tree where it goes to loaf many afternoons around 4:30. That is, it was a wild leopard living unfenced and apparently well fed in the middle of the city, on a dwindling forest patch roughly the size of Central Park between 59th and 71st Streets. When I hiked the hillside the next day, I found a massive slum just on the other side, heavy construction equipment nibbling at the far end, and a developer’s private helipad up top. And yet the leopard seemed to have mastered the art of avoiding people, going out by night to pick off dogs, cats, chickens, pigs, rats and other camp followers of human civilization.
Welcome to the future of urban living. Predators are turning up in cities everywhere, and living among us mostly without incident. Big, scary predators, at that. Wolves now live next door to Rome’s main airport, and around Hadrian’s Villa, just outside the city. A mountain lion roams the Hollywood Hills and has his own Facebook page. Coyotes have turned all of Chicago into their territory. Great white sharks, attracted by …
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Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues | Tagged: leopards, Mumbai, urban predators | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on November 10, 2015
Lit by a camera-trap flash and the glow of urban Mumbai, a leopard prowls the edge of India’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park. (Photo: Steve Winter)
My article on leopards appears in the December issue of National Geographic magazine, and a slightly reformatted version appears today online. I did the reporting in southern Africa, and India. Here’s the lead:
We were sitting in the dark, waiting for the leopards beside a trail on the edge of India’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park, 40 square miles of green life in the middle of the sprawling gray metropolis of Mumbai. A line of tall apartment buildings stood just opposite, crowding the park border. It was 10 p.m., and through the open windows came the sounds of dishes being cleaned and children being put to bed. Religious music floated up from a temple in the distance. Teenage laughter, a motorcycle revving. The hum and clatter of 21 million people, like a great machine. Somewhere in the brush around us, the leopards were listening too, waiting for the noise to die down. Watching.
About 35 leopards live in and around this park. That’s an average of less than two square miles of habitat apiece, for animals that can easily range ten miles in a day. These leopards also live surrounded by some of the world’s most crowded urban neighborhoods, housing 52,000 people or more per square mile. (That’s nearly twice the population density of New York City.) And yet the leopards thrive. Part of their diet comes from spotted deer and other wild prey within the park. But many of the leopards also work the unfenced border between nature and civilization. While the city sleeps, they slip through the streets and alleys below, where they pick off dogs, cats, pigs, rats, chickens, and goats, the camp followers of human civilization. They eat people too, though rarely.
They are fearful of people, and with good reason. Humans make
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Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: leopards, Mumbai, Panthera, South Africa, Wildlife Conservation Service | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on May 29, 2015
Moving in on Mumbai’s Aarey Milk Colony (Photos: Richard Conniff)
When a builder hungers to develop a patch of open space, he finds an environmental consultant to conclude that there isn’t any wildlife living there. It’s an ecological desert, the consultant dutifully reports. A wasteland. Really, the developer is doing a public service by even offering to put a building there.
I have seen this Big Lie prevail at home, where critical wetland habitat in the Jersey Meadowlands has given way to a hideous mega-mall described, by Gov. Chris Christie, no less, as “the ugliest damn building in New Jersey, and maybe America.” And I saw The Lie at work again early this month on a visit to Mumbai, India’s largest city and the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the world.
The cattle stalls in the middle of Mumbai
One of the odder things about Mumbai is that it contains a 40-square-mile national park, in the middle of a metropolis of 20.5 million people. Also oddly, the park has a very agricultural 4,000-acre appendage on its southern end called Aarey Milk Colony. The name means what it suggests: In the 1940s, the city moved dairy farmers 20 miles north to what was then forested countryside with the aim of providing a reliable milk supply for the city. About 16,000 buffalo now live in open sheds there, and the rest of the colony is a mix of woodlands and fields growing fodder for the cattle. Locals sometimes refer to Aarey as “the green lungs of Mumbai.”
But pressure to develop open land has become unbelievably fierce in the surrounding area, where population density can top 71,000 people per square mile. Developers nibble away at open space, regardless of whether they actually own it. Early this year, for instance, local journalist Ranjeet Jadhav reported that the so-called “land mafia”—developers and their collaborators in government—were selling off shanty-size chunks of Aarey Milk Colony for Read the rest of this entry »
Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: Aarey Milk Colony, Land Mafia, Mumbai, urban wildlife | Leave a Comment »