Saturday, March 24, 2007

Urban leopard attacks increase as habitat shrinks in India

Development Preys on World's Largest Urban Forest

By Krittivas Mukherjee, Reuters
March 23, 2007

MUMBAI - A protected jungle billed as the world's largest urban national park in India's financial capital is being encroached, built over and damaged as a rapidly growing city takes a toll on the forest's diverse flora and fauna.

Almost 30 times bigger than New York's Central Park, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park on the northern rim of Mumbai is home not only to about 20 adult leopards and hundreds of kinds of animals and birds, but also about 200,000 people, many of whom are involved in illegal forest activities.

As India observed World Forestry Day on Wednesday, authorities and experts expressed concern at the development of new residential blocks that have blurred the distinction between the city and the countryside to accommodate Mumbai's expanding population of 17 million.

"To save this green lung of Mumbai the forest has to be rid of encroachers, and building activities around it have to be monitored," said Kailash Birari, the national park's assistant conservator.

"This is the world's largest national park within city limits and it is unique and vital."

The effects of urban development on the 104 sq km (40 sq mile) forest are easy to see.

In 2004, at least 14 people were killed in attacks by leopards in Mumbai after their shrinking habitat forced them to stray from the national park and enter nearby neighbourhoods.

At least 47 straying leopards were caught in 2004 and 2005 and plans are afoot to release them in the wild with electromagnetic chips in their tails so that they could be tracked and permanently locked up if they attacked people again.

It is illegal to kill leopards, an endangered species in Africa and Asia often hunted for their fur.


The Mumbai national park's predicament is part of a larger problem facing India which is struggling to save its forests and endangered animals such as the tiger.

Experts say about 40 million of India's poorest people live in forests, and while most of them live off minor forest produce some of them are paid by criminal gangs to lay traps, poison water sources and electrocute big cats.

Last year, India passed a bill granting land ownership to those who have lived in the forests for at least three generations, following a long-standing demand from the settlers.

But conservationists say that many illegal settlers could take advantage of the law and hamper efforts to save endangered species.

After years of legal wrangling, a leading Mumbai environmental group got an order to evict 61,000 families living inside Sanjay Gandhi National Park, but authorities admit the forest is yet to be cleared of human habitation.

"It's been years since the court verdict and still hundreds of thousands of people are living there," said Debi Goenka of Bombay Environment Action Group.

Birari says about 35,000 families were eligible for alternative housing.

"About 5,000 families will soon be moved out to alternative accommodation," he said. "The rest would be moved in a phased manner."

Environmentalists said they were hoping the government resettlement programme would be implemented before the forest disappeared.


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