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The Rediff Special/Devangshu Dutta in New Delhi
July 01, 2004
While travelling in the Sundarbans, tourists are generally advised to wear a standard-issue paper mask that costs Rs 15. If you want to go 'ethnic', you can opt for a marginally expensive papier-maché version. All masks depict a standard-issue face with slightly exaggerated features; big nose, luxuriant moustache and bushy eyebrows.
The eyes lack peepholes. This is not a design defect -- the mask is meant to be worn on the back of the head. Nor is this a tribal ritual handed down through millennia in an oral tradition that pays homage to irrational belief-systems. The masks became popular less than 30 years ago for rational reasons.
The Royal Bengal Tiger does not make frontal attacks on prey when it is feeling peckish. It prefers to creep up behind the unwary and break the neck with one quick leap and snap of the paw.
A stalking tiger is often disoriented enough by a two-faced, two-legged beast to wander off in search of less confusing prey. The masks are a brilliant low-tech solution for Sundarbans-dwellers -- attacks have declined sharply since people started wearing masks.
It would be a little difficult to issue masks to all residents along the perimeter of the Borivli National Park in Mumbai. In any case, the local danger is from leopards who adapt their hunting methods quicker than tigers. Leopards are incredibly adaptable -- that is why they survive where other predators are snuffed out.
Borivli is a problem with dimensions that go way beyond the (normally thorny) issues of conservation. It's a question of sheer numbers. The world over, humans encroach into natural parks. But Mumbai is the only megacity to have expanded until a park, which hosts 50 leopards, became part of its suburbs.
In terms of 'encroachment,' there are 1.5 lakh people living inside the park. This is after a drive that has relocated more than 50,000 people.
This is bad enough in itself. But encroachment isn't the only issue. Complex after high-rise complex lines the boundaries and the people who live in those societies are just as much at risk as the encroachers.
Unfortunately, those people are also part of the problem. Large urban populations generate huge quantities of garbage. The garbage attracts packs of stray dogs. Leopards love dogs and will eat canines in preference to their normal diet of deer, fowl and so on.
As far as the big cats are concerned, every garbage dump is a fast-food parlour. Leopards are largely nocturnal and Mumbai prides itself on being a city that never shuts down. Hence, the regular encounters between cats and humans.
The park has plenty of natural prey and the leopards don't have a food shortage. But there is that marked preference for dogs. Sometimes leopards attack people squatting to relieve themselves, mistaking the silhouette for that of a canine. Sometimes they attack children. Sixteen people have died this year.
The official responses have been, thankfully, restrained. Leopards have been trapped and relocated. Some have been relocated out of the park in an attempt to reduce the local population. Pigs have been released into the park in the hopes that fewer leopards will stray out in search of dogs if pork is readily available.
However, more drastic measures are urgently necessary. The classic solution of relocating the local population is simply not possible. Zones contiguous to the park contain businesses and real estate worth thousands of crores. Lakhs of people, including many high net-worth individuals, live and work there, commuting at all hours.
Perhaps it would help if there was better lighting along the perimeters. Maybe low-voltage fencing or ultrasound siren systems could encourage the cats to stay inside the park.
The local stray dogs need to be rounded up but that task requires sensitivity -- municipal corporations have a tendency to model their dog-catching methods on the lines of a Spanish Auto Da Fe. And, it couldn't hurt locals to invest in masks.