In the last 15 years, 128 people have been attacked in or around the national park. As many as 17 people succumbed as prey between 2002-2003. But the highest number of cases was reported in 2004 when 19 people were killed and 11 injured by the predators. After the heightened conflict between 2002-2004, statistics show a zero cases reported from 2006 to 2012. The period from July 2012 till October 2013, however, has again seen an increase in attacks with six people, being killed due to leopard attacks. Experts and forest officials are struggling to unearth what may have triggered the recent attacks.
According to wildlife conservationists, 2002-2004 was the worst period, as the forest department released many leopards into SGNP from Ahmednagar and Pune districts. Dislocated, the trapped animals found themselves left in a park surrounded by humans, which is likely to have led to the spurt in encounters between the two.
“After being caged for days, a leopard becomes irritable. Being relocated makes it difficult for the animal to adapt. This could be the reason for the rise in attacks towards humans at that time,” said Debi Goenka of Conservation Action Trust. “The translocation came to the fore only when repeated attacks began,” he added. A Mumbai citizen’s report also lists translocation as the main reason for the rise in attacks during that period.
After no instance of a fatal attack after 2006 the duel seems to have restarted with six fatal attacks reported since July 2012. Since, no translocation of animals has been carried out in this time, experts, locals and forest officials are finding it difficult to zero in on a reason. Experts said the number of people living on the forest periphery has increased two to three times, thereby shrinking forest cover.
“The number of buildings and encroachments has increased over the years. There is an increase in the amount of garbage and the number of strays–enough to attract leopards to the periphery and put them in a head-on conflict with humans,” said Krishna Tiwari of City Forest Initiative. Tiwari added that it is because of this that newer buildings and housing societies that have sprung up close to the forest have reported more frequent leopard sightings For underprivileged communities living on the forest periphery without concrete housing or access to toilets and transport, the big cat could very well be lurking behind a bush.
Some experts believe that the recent attacks could be attributed to a single predator prowling the area. as there is no apparent trigger for the animal to attack humans. “In recent time, the initial few incidents could have been chance attacks. However, it is a possibility that one leopard, who is not used to preying on humans is now trying to target them as often as possible. This reasoning is unproven though,” said an activist.
Tiwari said that the situation would only be resolved when encroachments are removed and fewer construction projects are allowed near the forest. “There has been no implementation of the 2005 high court order to remove encroachments, nor has there been any effort to build a proper national park boundary. If these measures aren’t taken, this conflict may never be resolved,” concurred Goenka.