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Inside the Cage

July 15, 2005

Backpacking through Namibia some years ago, I found myself at a small camp out in the country. I don't remember any more how I got there, nor why, because nothing was notable about the place. Except this: for some inexplicable reason, they had two or three leopards in cages. The owners said they had just captured them in the wild, though they didn't say what they planned to do with the animals. Then they encouraged me to step right up to the cages and look at them.

I did so. I remember even today, as a sort of frisson of adrenaline runs through a trembling nerve somewhere in my body, the feeling I had at the time. These lithe, sleek cats were behind rigid bars they could never have broken through. I knew that. Even so, they had me suddenly sweating in fear. Not that they roared, nor even growled loudly. They didn't need to be loud. No, it was just the sheer menace in their eyes, the coiled tension in their bodies, the gently bared fangs, the almost graceful way they snarled at me.

The message I got was as unmistakable as if they had spelled it out: the only thing between you and swift death, buddy, is these bars. So get lost and leave us alone!

It was only long afterwards that it struck me: the leopards were every bit as frightened as I was, probably even more. After all, how terrifying must it be to be trapped and bundled into a small cage, to have strange humans peering in at you and grimacing? And there's something else too: it isn't wild animals who win when they have encounters with mankind. If we're talking about death, the evidence shows that leopards have far more to fear from us than we do from them.

These Namibia memories have been on my mind, of course, because of the spate of leopard attacks in Mumbai over the last couple of years. A photographer friend who went to Borivali to photograph some of the captured cats came back speaking of just what I felt in Namibia. Even though the leopards were in cages, they exuded a menace that had him shivering almost uncontrollably while he took his shots. Yet, like me, he was also conscious of how frightened the animals themselves were.

I say this without meaning at all to take away from the tragedy of these attacks. Leopards have killed several hapless citizens on the fringes of the Borivali National Park: taken them from their homes, silently attacked them as they took walks or went out to get water. This has got the residents of those areas angry and terrified, and understandably resentful of the cats, of a park that tries to "protect" them. All of which -- the attacks, the resentment -- should never have happened. Yet how sad that it takes grisly deaths like these to alert us to the growing crisis in what should be one of the country's finest sanctuaries, to the increasingly contentious line that runs between Indian animal and Indian man.

And yet, what's the answer? Now I'm no expert on wildlife, nor do I live in a place where my life itself is under constant threat from, of all things, leopards. I'm just a journeyman writer, just another citizen of this city with its infinity of problems. I'm moved by the sadness of these killings, yet admiring of the sleek power the killers have in abundance. I'm unwilling to accept that there should be any more of this unnecessary slaughter, yet unable to see how there will ever be an end to further confrontations. Because you could make a case that human history itself has seen men steadily moving into spaces that were originally occupied by animals. And all through history, this has been a traumatic process, even though animals have lost every time and will lose this time as well, here in Borivali.

So try it yourself: what's the answer?

Move the leopards out, some say, and maybe even a lot of the other animals from the Borivali Park. How? Where? And even if you do, what's the guarantee they will survive in a new habitat, in unfamiliar surroundings probably claimed by other big cats who would be hostile to newcomers?

Build a fence, some suggest. Fine, but who will build it? Who will police it to prevent breaches by people eyeing the land and resources of the park? What are the implications of a fence for animals who roam free?

Release pigs, rabbits and stray dogs into the park, as food for the cats, others think. But is that enough food? How do we know? What about food for these introduced animals? Besides, will there be unpredictable side-effects of such a move, side-effects that produce further headaches? After all, we know of other cases around the world where animals were introduced like this for one reason or another, and there have been major unforeseen problems.

What about keeping the areas surrounding the park strictly garbage-free, thus free of stray dogs, therefore unattractive to and free from leopards too? Forgive my cynicism, but given how much garbage lies around everywhere I wander in my city, I can't quite swallow the viability of this. It's hard to believe in a solution that is founded on overnight cleanliness.

Or there are those who have suggested moving the people. Forgive my cynicism again, but our track record with moving displaced people is hardly reassuring. In this case, the sheer numbers -- tens of thousands of people -- make this a daunting prospect. Where's the space to resettle them? How will they commute? Or will there be jobs for them there, and who will generate those jobs? Why wouldn't they simply move back to Borivali?

Sadly, and though I long to be proved wrong, only one answer looks viable to me. Therefore it's the one I see as most likely to come about. The cats die.

And that will happen in one of three ways. Either they are deliberately killed, or they are moved to new homes and die there, or they stay where they are and simply lose -- as they must and will -- the tug of war with humans in Borivali.

The equation is very simple. As long as this city remains the engine of economic growth it is, a magnet for unemployed people from all over the country; as long as widely affordable housing remains as unaddressed an issue as it is; as long as each of these truths about Mumbai hold, there will be steady encroachment on that Park in Borivali.

And therefore, steadily shrinking space for leopards.

Of course this is a process that has gone on throughout history. But a historical perspective on what is playing out in Borivali doesn't make it more palatable.

So in the end, after reading about leopards, I go back to that day in Namibia and savour the memories. Yes, partly because of that fearful thrill that ran through my body then. But also because I think I understood that day what true fear is. It wasn't what I felt. It was inside the cage.

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Death Ends Fun:

Dilip D'Souza

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Number of User Comments: 1

Sub: Softstate nature..

Very insightful article. It is a shame that we are losing out these wonders of nature so fast. And in no time there won't be ...

Posted by Prashanth G


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