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As Bombay grows, so do deaths from leopards

Housing sprouts near the habitat of a predator

BOMBAY -- The leopards come at dusk, leaping into buses, creeping into orphanages, and dragging men, women, and children from bungalows and shanties that have mushroomed at the edges of an improbable wedge of green surrounded by one of the world's most populous cities.

After years of relatively peaceful coexistence, big cats and humans are at war on the edges of Bombay. Ten people were killed in June, and four leopards tranquilized and confined to metal cages.

The killing spree appears to be caused by the same factor that has led to increasing encounters with big cats across the American West: the expansion of suburbs into tracts of wild land. More humans bring more potential food in the form of trash and, especially in India, stray dogs. The leopards hunt where the food is.

''Whether it's Tokyo or London or [Bombay], we keep encroaching into the countryside," said Sunjay Morga, a naturalist who has written a book on the leopards' habitat, the 40-square-mile Sanjay Gandhi National Park at the edge of Bombay. ''Nature always retaliates whenever it gets a chance."

For decades, scattered homes and apartment buildings have hugged the edges of the park, a stretch of jungly hills that have been preserved at the northern edge of the island where Bombay is situated. But longtime residents say their once-bucolic region has been transformed in the last few years.

Now the roads to the national park are dotted with billboards, touting developments with names such as Glendale that boast ''10 acres of landscaped gardens." The new buildings charge a premium for their proximity to the park.

Accompanying the luxury high-rises and middle-class subdivisions is one of India's signature forms of development: massive shantytowns that are built illegally, albeit with the covert blessing of powerful political parties. Shanties have even sprouted within the park boundaries, where a few thousand members of local tribes have always lived.

Leopard attacks were a yearly phenomenon in the region and have been steadily mounting. Last year, 16 people were killed; in the first half of this year 14 died. This year's killings have been especially intense. The victims include a 3-year-old girl playing outside her modest house, poverty-stricken people dragged from their doorless shanties, and professionals mauled while exercising in nature.

Naturalists are at a loss to explain the cats' newfound aggressiveness. Until the last two years, they say, the cats would rarely attack humans, usually targeting the tribal residents inside the park.

Bombay is abuzz with ideas for reining in the cats, from fencing in the park to deporting the leopards to other areas of India. Political parties have led impassioned delegations to park headquarters, demanding action. On Tuesday, a horde of reporters and camera crews went to the park's interior to record the release of pigs and rabbits, which theoretically will serve as an alternative food source.

There has been little discussion of limiting development. Bombay is one of the largest and fastest-growing metropolises in the world, with an estimated 16 million people. Land prices have soared in the city center, and concrete is radiating outward to seemingly every available patch of land.

''We are a totally undisciplined society," said A.R. Parathi, the divisional forest officer in the park. ''When you try to plan out your development, you must take into account the other inhabitants. . . . You want your building to be next to the national park, but you don't want the leopards there."

The attacks have shaken residents near the park, but plenty of people keep coming.

Priya Mhatre, a 30-year-old bank clerk, was fed up with life in noisy, concrete-lined central Bombay. Last year she transferred to a branch in the Mulund area, just below the hills of the park, and moved into a high-rise apartment.

''It's a much-sought-after place to live in, even now," Mhatre said. ''The mountains, the ambience." She said she was not too worried about the cats. ''As long as I don't go into their area, I figure they won't come into mine."

But the leopards have not been respecting human boundaries.

More agile than mountain lions, leopards often pounce on their prey from their perch in trees. Last year, a leopard leapt into a city bus on a road near the park, emptying it of passengers. Recently, a big cat crept into an orphanage in the suburb of Thane. It ate the German shepherd that the facility kept as a pet rather than go after any of the cowering children.

Guards at the new St. Forest development across the road from the park's eastern boundary report that the cats creep in at dusk and crouch on the roofs of the single-story homes, looking for food.

Kuldip Singh went for a dawn stroll on the hill just above Mulund every day for 25 years. Singh was a veteran of hikes throughout southern India and would often trek barefoot so as not to injure any other living creatures, friends and family say. He had survived snake bites and scorpion stings, and had encountered leopards before with no problems.

''He used to love them," said Suriender Katyal, an occasional hiking companion.

The leopard Singh encountered June 9 was not so benign. It killed the 60-year-old lawyer near the peak of Singh's favorite hill.

Harjinder Singh, a fellow hiker who is no relation, said the leopard attacks had stopped the walkers in their tracks. Still, he and his friends hear the call of the wild.

''You don't find peace in these concrete buildings," he said, gesturing to a high-rise under construction. ''You find peace in nature."

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