The alley cat by Nayan Khanolkar

The alley cat by Nayan Khanolkar

Mumbai's leopards caught on camera

In the centre of India's largest city, humans spend their days alongside big cats.

Photographer Nayan Khanolkar is documenting the extraordinary lives of urban leopards.

In the suburbs of Mumbai, the streets are bustling. By day, alleyways serve as playgrounds, cricket strips, resting areas and walkways for the city's human inhabitants.

And once most people have turned in for the night, these places become hunting grounds for powerful predators: leopards.

As cities expand to meet national parks, humans and big cats have merged their living spaces. It's not always a harmonious relationship, but it's one that looks set to continue.

Biologist, teacher and photographer Nayan Khanolkar, from Mumbai, has spent months documenting life with leopards.

His image, The alley cat, won the Urban category in this year's Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. He told us how he got the shot.

Suburban coexistence

It took four months for Nayan to get his winning image. He monitored six locations in Mumbai with camera traps, which are equipped with infrared triggers to capture images remotely.

 

His method was successful in Aarey Milk Colony, the suburb closest to Sanjay Gandhi National Park, where the leopards live. It is 40 square miles of green space in the middle of the metropolis, and is home to hundreds of species, including about 35 leopards.

Aarey Milk Colony is one of the places where leopards enter the city, and these images from the camera trap show just how closely humans live to wild animals. 

At first Nayan only saw dogs, cats, women and children going about their daily lives - until a leopard silently stalking down the alley triggered a camera.

Nayan says, 'It is incredible that for these people, finding a leopard in their backyard is not out of the ordinary.

'The community there are used to them and have found a way to live next to them. They are absolutely synced with nature.

'We are fortunate that there are places on the planet where wild animals and humans are still coexisting.'

A move to the city

The primary reason that the leopards have left the park is to access easy food. It's a pattern that is replicated not just in Mumbai, but all over India and Asia.

Nayan says, 'It is our mistake. Humanity has created a food chain for them. People throw food outside and it attracts pigs and dogs, which leopards can hunt much more easily than running after a deer in the park.'

Nayan's full winning image

Nayan's full winning image

 

Humans are also encroaching on green spaces, with urban development closing off wildlife corridors across the world.

Conflicts

Life with Mumbai's leopards is not all plain sailing. People living in the area have occasionally been killed or injured by the cats.

Nayan says that despite the ensuing press coverage when they do happen, such attacks are in fact very rare.

He says, 'People live with these animals every day. They feel connected to them. They know how to handle them, to stay calm and let the cat go about its business.'

A leopard that does attack is often one which has not grown up in the suburbs. It is usually from another area and has lost its way in unfamiliar territory.

A city divided

Communities in Mumbai have responded to the local leopards in different ways.

The Warli tribe on the fringes of the forest (where Nayan's winning image was taken) have welcomed the leopards into their lives.

However, others feel differently about the threat the animals pose, calling for them to be moved.

Nayan says, 'Under normal circumstances, no leopard that has adapted well to his surroundings and his neighbours would attack them. The urban leopards of Aarey Colony have built a home there.

'Killing the leopards or translocating won't protect people from attacks. More will simply move in, to fill the space. Education is the only way to solve this problem.'

Protecting Mumbai's cats

Nayan says that after studying and tracking the leopards in the area, he feels a personal connection to them.

In the two years he has been watching the animals in Aarey Colony, he has identified nine leopards.

'When I started this project I felt no connection to the animals,' he says. 'I just wanted to understand the problem. But now I feel a personal connection to them that is similar to the one you would feel for your dog.

'We know the leopards by name and worry about them if we haven't seen any signs or footage of them for a few weeks.'

Nayan had his own encounter with one of the cats in 2016, when he crawled into the jungle after setting up a camera trap.

He says, 'I was on my hands and knees like an animal, and I saw a fully-grown female leopard six feet from me. She could easily have killed me, but she looked me directly in the face and walked away. They are not out to harm us.

'They are beautiful creatures and should be respected and protected. We will continue our monitoring work and educate people in the best ways to deal with them as much as we can.

'A violent mob response is not the answer. I am hoping to help people understand these creatures through my photography. An image can make such a big impact. It is very powerful.'

Visit Wildlife Photographer of the Year

See Nayan's winning image alongside other stunning wildlife photography. Find out more.

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See Nayan's image alongside the world's best nature photography.