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The Sanjay Gandhi National Park: Contested territory.

Despite ‘green space development’ serving as a solution to the “cultural, political and economic conundrums of cities” (Loughran, 2020), UPE highlights the importance of how it produces unequal power relations, including the marginal group of more-than-humans. There’s no better example to explore this, than through examining the multi species conflict within Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park [SGNP].

The SGNP is home to 41 leopards, but leopards have always been in Mumbai, since the bridged city was formerly a tropical archipelago. Yet, due to recent human-leopard conflict, leopards have been relocated within the park, only to amount to conflict again; they become stressed-out predators in an unfamiliar habitat, and often try to navigate back to their original habitat which may lead to more conflict for those who encounter them. Indeed, between 2002-2004, there was a high incidence of 24 leopard attacks. Since it is illegal to kill leopards under the Wildlife Protection Act of India, the Maharashtra Forest Department implemented a leopard relocation program across Maharashtra, not only for leopards which had attacked, but also for those that were ‘straying’, and placed them in the SGNP. Clearly, this ‘expert’ knowledge proved a failure [relocations stopped in 2006] and thus represents a clear UPE understanding of the “urban not as a bounded city within which political-ecological contestations, but as a process of continuous socio-ecological transformation” (Tzaninis et al, 2021:232), where ecological practices [across Maharashtra] can produce inequity elsewhere [the SGNP] through the proliferation of human-leopard conflict.

UPE scholars would also argue that the practice of animal relocation occurs because “non-human animals which challenge the grand design and spatial ordering of the city are seen as trespassers on human territory”. Foucalt’s work on biosecurity is relevant here; the concept draws upon the attempt to make “life safe”, for humans, which revolves around bodily control and regulation of lives, which in turn determines access to the city for several species. Yet, ‘leopard attacks have forced people to realize that a separation between park and city, between nature and culture, is but an illusion,’; they must now accept that there is, and always has been, a ‘more-than-human-right to the city’ (Shingne, 2020).

Leopard attacks are often sensationalised by the media (Braczkowksi et al, 2018), with words such as “killed” used to attribute blame to them, to imply they do not belong to the city but some Mumbaikars think differently. Namely, the Adivasi tribe in the SGNP worship a tiger-god who they believe is the older brother of the leopard; they consider biodiversity as a whole so ‘they cannot conceive of a forest without leopards’. This knowledge may have led to the introduction of education workshops in 2011 on how to peacefully coexist with leopards, led by NGOs, volunteers and the media, which led to reduced fatalities. This shows local knowledge may be a better fit for socio-ecological concerns. Then there are the ‘leopard lovers’; middle class environmentalists who lack scientific knowledge but act as stewards of the SGNP; they care for leopards, but hold no regard for slum dwellers. Middle-class residents near the park, like slum dwellers, fear leopards; they “often fight for a better ‘environment”; only the leopards aren’t part of it. This relates to the concept of ‘teletubbyism’; a utopian vision of an entirely green city, which fulfils the interests of wealthy urbanites, but lacks a holistic perception of biodiversity in the city.

Screenshot from an online video showing how the media represents the leopard as a threat to humans using the word ‘attack’, which reinforces the process of “othering” more-than-human denizens. (YouTube, India Today)

Despite bearing the brunt of leopard attacks, slum dwellers’ are not involved in human-leopard conflict discussion, and officials often describe them as having “encroached” on leopard territory, yet this political ‘knowledge’ is misleading. I would argue that, from a UPE perspective, ‘conflicting urban sprawl and conservation sprawl’ (Landy, 2017) is to blame.

Map of the SGNP: one can see how the unproductive dualism of an urban and conservation sprawl will coerce leopards to live in certain spaces within Mumbai, which increases the likelihood of human-leopard conflict

In other words, this ‘intrusion (of leopard territory) is not confined to the increase of slums, it includes the rising number of residential complexes around these reserves’, the wealthy class’s demand for green space and rapid urbanisation. I believe, to counter encroachment onto the SGNP, ecological corridors such as wildlife bridges are required, which would facilitate leopards’ mobilities around Mumbai, and promote convivial conservation.

In Mumbai, “the leopard masks the very human relations of power. Different graduated levels of citizenships have been highlighted in and around the SGNP, corresponding to unequal rights to the city”, from slum dwellers to the leopards. The UPE lens, throughout these blog posts, has attempted to reveal the unequal power relations behind these inequities, which I hope will encourage solutions to achieve socio-ecological equity within, and beyond the city.


2 responses to “The Sanjay Gandhi National Park: Contested territory.”

  1. Really interesting read about the leopards – I has no idea that they were originally in Mumbai, and when I had read articles about these attacks, words such as killed were definitely used, and the articles were worded in a way that made the leopards seem as if they were the unwelcome guests, when in actual reality they belong there. – Lily


    1. Hi Lily- Thank you! I also found it fascinating that leopards were always part of Mumbai’s landscape, which means they have an inherent, and ‘more-than-human’ right to the city, despite their negative portrayal in the media.


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