Learning to Live With Leopards

As humans encroach on their habitat, the big cats are adapting. Can we do the same?

We were sitting in the dark, waiting for the leopards beside a trail on the edge of India’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park, 40 square miles of green life in the middle of the sprawling gray metropolis of Mumbai. A line of tall apartment buildings stood just opposite, crowding the park border. It was 10 p.m., and through the open windows came the sounds of dishes being cleaned and children being put to bed. Religious music floated up from a temple in the distance. Teenage laughter, a motorcycle revving. The hum and clatter of 21 million people, like a great machine. Somewhere in the brush around us, the leopards were listening too, waiting for the noise to die down. Watching.

About 35 leopards live in and around this park. That’s an average of less than two square miles of habitat apiece, for animals that can easily range ten miles in a day. These leopards also live surrounded by some of the world’s most crowded urban neighborhoods, housing 52,000 people or more per square mile. (That’s nearly twice the population density of New York City.) And yet the leopards thrive. Part of their diet comes from spotted deer and other wild prey within the park. But many of the leopards also work the unfenced border between nature and civilization. While the city sleeps, they slip through the streets and alleys below, where they pick off dogs, cats, pigs, rats, chickens, and goats, the camp followers of human civilization. They eat people too, though rarely.

They are fearful of people, and with good reason. Humans make fickle companions, admiring, rescuing, and even revering leopards in some contexts, and reviling them in many others—shooting them, snaring them, poisoning them, hanging them, even dousing a trapped leopard with kerosene, striking a match, and calmly filming as the animal writhes and whirls in a ball of fire, dying, but not nearly fast enough. Conservationists call leopards the world’s most persecuted big cat.

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