Mumbai: In the winter of 1913, residents witnessed a jackal being chased by a pack of stray dogs from Charni Road Station to Marine Drive. In 1822, a tiger trotted down Malabar Hill, headed to Gowalia Tank to quench its thirst, and ran off up the hill again, its pug marks clearly visible the next morning. And on February 15, 1859, all hell broke loose when a panther was spotted prowling the lanes of Kalbadevi. It was hunted down and shot to death by the then Commissioner of Police as it fled towards the shores of Back Bay.
While old-timers who`ve grown up on such city lore smile wistfully and doff their hats to a Bombay that no longer is, it`s hard to imagine the plush residential areas of Marine Drive and Malabar Hill sharing space with the likes of now endangered animals like tigers, Indian wild boar, jackals and striped hyenas. Mumbai has paid a high price for the tag of financial capital of India, say historians and experts who have documented the demise of wildlife in the city. The last tiger is believed to have been shot in the vicinity of Vihar Lake on January 22, 1929, by a J J Sutari.
Ashok Kothari, naturalist and secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), said: "There was a time when tigers would roam the areas of Malabar Hill, Mahim, Byculla, Kurla, Mazgaon and Trombay, till as late the 1920s. They would seek shelter in the forests of suburban Mumbai and Thane city."
The book `Living Jewels From The Indian Jungles` (edited by B F Chhapgar and Ashok S Kothari), recounts a time when tigers were plentiful in Salsette Island—now Mumbai Suburban District and Thane—at the end of the 18th Century. During the Raj, governors were known to embark on annual excursions to Salsette to hunt tigers and boar. There is another vignette of a man-eating tiger whose reign of terror in Toongar now Tungareshwar came to an end when it was shot down in 1881. "Today tigers are restricted to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park," said Dr Kothari.
But it`s not just the tiger that has been driven to extinction in Mumbai. Jackals and hyenas, too, have been systematically hunted down over the last century.
The call of the jackal was as common as the cawing of the crow. Few students of St Xavier`s College in Dhobi Talao are aware that in two separate instances, jackals were found on their campus—one in November 1918, and another in 1932.
Anand Pendharkar, wildlife biologist and director of NGO SPROUTS, said: "There are a few rare jackal sightings mainly in mangrove areas near Lokhandwala Complex in Andheri, Malad, Charkop and Gorai. And the shy civet cat and mongoose occasionally make an appearance in areas like Vikhroli and Goregaon East, but their numbers have dropped drastically."
Striped hyenas managed to survive the urban onslaught till as late as the 1990s. "We believe that the last two hyenas of Mumbai were shot dead near Film City in Goregaon in the `90s," said Sunjoy Monga, author and naturalist.
The leopard has managed to survive Mumbai`s economic boom. The much-maligned cat scratches out a living, its habitat restricted to the green patches at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Aarey Milk Colony.