Ankit Vyas was the first to spot the mortal remains of a hare. It must have been savaged by a leopard, said the 16-year-old wildlife enthusiast, who was volunteering on the annual wildlife census conducted at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park by the forest department. Ankit and a close group of six nature lovers and a forest officer, eagerly soaked in the sights and sounds of all that crawled, flew and ran in the jungle. In particular, they kept their eyes peeled for the prize sighting: one of the Park’s 24 elusive leopards.
The census method used in Mumbai’s only wildlife sanctuary involves old techniques like pug mark tracking, identifying excreta left behind by the Hanuman Langoor, looking for leopard scratch marks on tree trunks, spotting a spotted deer and making note of any antlers that have been shed.
Wildlife experts claim these methods are outdated, and that newer methods like camera trapping and studying DNA of leopard droppings should be used. Anish Andheria of Science Asia says that even calling the exercise a `census’ is incorrect.
“The numbers derived are not anywhere close to the total count which is why it should be called a population estimation or density estimation,” he says.
Forest officers say that the new scientific methods require money, which the department is always short of. Environmentalist Bittu Sahgal agrees that monetary support is required to implement the guidelines set by the Wildlife Institute of India protocol for better estimation techniques. “Mumbai needs 30 pairs of camera traps where individual leopards can be identified by their spot patterns. Like human fingerprints, each individual leopard’s spots are unique,” he explains.
Concurrently held at Tansa, Karnala and Phansad forests, the last day of the census, which began on Sunday, is the most anticipated. Census volunteers say that on Saturday night, the full moon will be at its brightest just before the monsoon, making it the best time to spot a leopard. Every year, the census is carried out during the peak of summer when waterholes dry up, forcing animals to congregate at man-made water ponds and lakes. This year, over 20 bamboo machaans have been rigged up near the water holes for volunteers.
On last year’s census, zoology student Vandan Jhaveri spotted a leopard at Tulsi Lake. This year, Jhaveri is headed south to the the Kudremukh National Park in Karnataka. “They use professional methods there like camera trapping,” he says.
The leopards have steadily dwindled. From 42 in 2001 to 24 in 2008. One of the culprits, experts say, is the massive illegal encroachment on forest land. A BNHS study shows that the leopard’s staple diet consists of either the domestic dog or rodent, instead of the deer or wild boar. “Leopards feeding on dogs that in turn feed on garbage is not a good sign,” says Sahgal.