Leopard numbers in SGNP increase, but infra projects shrink their habitat

The number of free-roaming leopards at Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SNGP) increased to 47 last year from 41 in 2017, and 35 in 2015, a census report released on Wednesday revealed.

The census, conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society-India (WCS) in collaboration with SGNP, found 17 male leopards and 27 females. The sexes of three leopards could not be identified.

The camera-traps, set-up across an area of 140 sq km, photographed eight leopard cubs.

However, even as leopard population rose, the space these animals have has shrunk owing to several infrastructure and real estate projects in the area.

“Between the northern part of SNGP and Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary (TWLS), there are five barriers – Vasai creek, Kamani-Bhiwandi Road, Kamani railway line, Ghodbunder Road and a transmission line – that make it difficult for the leopards to disperse into the green corridor from TWLS to Tansa,” said Anwar Ahmed, SGNP director and chief conservator of forest.

“Despite just a 90-metre gap between SGNP and TWLS, leopards are unable to cross. We are developing a mitigation plan for the corridor.”

“Each leopard should have at least 6 sq km area as its natural habitat. With several infrastructure projects such as the bullet train, multi-modal corridor and Panvel-Virar railway line, intersecting with sections of SGNP, the habitat is likely to get squeezed further,” he said.

Vehicular traffic is another major concern. Since 2016, 10 leopard deaths directly related to road accidents have been reported. The census, too, recorded a male leopard, L59, who was first photographed in 2017, crossing high-traffic barriers such Ghodbunder Road, Vasai creek and the Diva-Kaman railway line to get to TWLS. It was found dead at Kaman-Bhiwandi Road in January 2018.

“For the first time since leopard Ajoba [only leopard documented to have travelled till Tansa], we have proof that leopards are dispersing into TWLS, highlighting that leopards in SGNP are moving within this landscape,” said Nikit Surve from WCS-India. “There needs to be planned development, taking into consideration the safety of these cats. Or else, it would pose a threat to leopard dispersal.”

In March last year, HT reported that SGNP plans to build five overpasses and two underpasses around the park to safeguard leopards from road accidents. Work on underpasses has begun. “Two connecting corridors – one from TWLS to Nagla block and another from SGNP to Nagla block – will be constructed with help from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun,” said MK Rao, additional principal chief conservator of forest (west). Meanwhile, work on the overpasses, which is to be undertaken by the Railways, is yet to begin.

“High population of leopard prey, such as dogs, in the area is also an issue. We will be undertaking a drive to regulate the stray dog population,” said Rao.

First Published: Mar 28, 2019 10:50 IST

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