Most people know me as the tiger girl, but if I had to choose an animal that I most identify with, it would be the leopard (Panthera pardus). The lithe beauty and silent grace of this smaller yet deadly big cat is rivaled by few other animals in the Indian subcontinent. Less endangered and beloved than the tiger, its larger cousin, the leopard is overshadowed in the field of conservation. There is ample money to spend on tiger conservation; less so, for the unfortunate leopard. And yet the leopard faces even more threats than does the tiger as it is better suited to a life among humans. The most elusive of India’s big cats, the leopard has surpassed all expectations in the fight for survival. This blog post examines a few of the threats to the leopard, and discusses the future of Mumbai’s spotted ghost cat.

The Indian Leopard (Panthera pardus fusca) (Sanctuary Asia, P.C. M. Jayakumar)

The leopard is the most adaptable of India’s wildlife, and indeed, there is much for it to adapt to. The rise of urban centres, the destruction of forested habitat, and rapid development of roadways and towns have placed unforeseen pressures on wildlife to adapt to an environment that is both hostile and increasingly unfamiliar. But the leopard has proven to be a master of adaptation, even colonizing the world’s largest urban national park – Sanjay Gandhi National Park – in India’s commercial capital, Mumbai. Nearly 40 leopards live in this 104 sq. km. (25,699 acres) forest in the suburbs of the megacity. Not only do they share their habitat with the adivasis (tribals), who are allowed by law to reside within the national park, and illegal settlements in the park, but they also cross paths daily with the millions who call Mumbai home. While these big cats are shy and avoid confrontation when possible, there have been incidents of human-leopard conflict in the suburbs bordering the park and the Aarey Milk Colony, located in the suburb of Goregaon, where my grandparents live.

Sanjay Gandhi National Park lies at the very edge of India’s commercial capital, Mumbai.

Like other large carnivores, leopards face discrimination due to poor public relations. Unfortunately, they get a bad rep. People hear of leopards and instantly conjure up images of a murderous beast with fangs that makes away with innocent children in the night. A lack of knowledge by non-wildlife experts and the gap between scientists and laypeople has generated a shortage of interest in the plight of the leopard, and has left it far behind the tiger in public perceptions. Additionally, the illegal demand for leopard pelts has made leopards a target of the poaching trade, where leopards are falling prey to poachers more so than are tigers. According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), 154 leopards were poached in 2016 (and this alarming figure only includes known cases) ( This number has barely reduced since the first recorded poaching of leopards in 1996, causing one to wonder whether the leopard is fated to survive in its homeland.

I have an immense fondness for this magnificent predator, one that, in my opinion, truly embodies the Mumbaikar spirit. Very much the underdog — or perhaps the undercat — the leopard faces more discrimination than the tiger, yet few campaigns and sponsors focus their attention on its plight. After all, the tiger is India’s national animal, well-loved and well-known. The leopard, sadly, is just another cat, spotted and hard to spot.

Today, on our country’s 71st Independence Day, I want to shine the spotlight on the beautiful, endangered leopard in a plea for its conservation. India’s wildlife is her crowning jewel. Her hills are her strength, her rivers are her lifeline. Conserving India’s wild places and the species that depend upon them for continued survival is one of the better ways we, as Indians, can give back to our Motherland. After all, the land belongs to all the life that inhabits it. The leopard, with its proven adaptability, its stealth, and its unassuming nature, deserves a chance at survival. We have already lost the Asiatic cheetah, which was hunted to extinction in India by the maharajas of old. Can we really afford to let another big cat go down the same route? Who are we, as a fellow species on this planet, to deny life its birthright? For all that is alive has an equal right to live.

The easiest way to save leopards is by preserving their habitat. Sanjay Gandhi National Park and the Aarey Milk Colony in Mumbai face the pressures of development even today. Raise your voices. If we speak now, we can save the lungs of Mumbai, and the species, including our own, that rely upon the forests to survive. If the forest goes, so do we.

An angry crowd chases away a leopard that happened to enter the village boundaries (AFP 2014)


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