Los Angeles and Mumbai, India, share many superlatives like the pinnacle of cinema, fashion, and traffic congestion. But another similarity lies in the shadows, which are most often seen at night as they walk silently on all fours.
These metropolises are the world’s only megacities of more than 10 million. Big cats – mountain lions in one, leopards in the other – thrive by breeding, hunting, and maintaining territory within urban boundaries.
Long-term studies in both cities have examined how the big cats prowl their urban jungles and how humans can best live alongside them — lessons that could apply to more places in the coming decades.
“There will be more cities like this in the future as urban areas further degrade natural habitats,” said biologist Audra Huffmeyer, who studies cougars at the University of California, Los Angeles. “If we want to keep these large carnivores on the planet, we must learn to live with them.”
HIGHWAYS AND FRAGMENTED HABITAT
Twenty years ago, scientists in Los Angeles placed a tracking collar on their first cat, a large male cougar named P1, defending a wide swath of the Santa Monica Mountains, a coastal area within and adjacent to the city.
“P1 was as big as they get in Southern California, about 150 pounds,” said Seth Riley, a National Park Service ecologist who was part of the effort. “These dominant males are the ones that reproduce — they don’t tolerate other adult males in their territory.”
Using GPS tracking and camera traps, the scientists tracked the rise and fall of the P1 dynasty for seven years through multiple mates and litters of kittens. “2009 was the last time we knew anything about P1,” said Riley. “There must have been a fight. We found his collar, and blood on a rock. And never saw him again. He was quite old.”
Since then, Riley has helped capture another 100 mountain lions in Los Angeles and built a massive database of lion behavior that has helped understand how much territory the cats need, what they eat (mostly deer), and how often they cross paths. With people and what could jeopardize their future.
As with medieval European kings, inbreeding proved to be the greatest threat. Living in small territories separated by highways has resulted in some males mating with daughters and granddaughters, who could not naturally disperse further afield. That has led to genetic problems such as fertility problems and kinked tails.
“Based on genetic analysis, we know that P1 mated with P6, his daughter — that was the first case we documented of this very close inbreeding,” Riley said.
LEOPARDS IN URBAN LANDSCAPE
In Mumbai, one of the world’s most populous cities, leopards are also crammed together: about 50 have adapted to a space ideally suited to 20. And yet the night cats are also largely out of sight.
“Because these animals are so secretive, you don’t know much about them. You can’t just observe them,” said Vidya Athreya, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society in India and part of a research team that recently fitted five leopards with tracking collars.
The leopards’ core area is centered around Sanjay Gandhi National Park, a protected area enclosed on three sides by an urbanized landscape, including a neighborhood of 100,000 people and nearly a dozen leopards.
Researchers addressed specific questions from park administrators, such as how the cats cross busy roads near the park.
To get the answer, they beat up a large man named Maharaja. The leopard crossed a busy state highway three times and used the same spot to pass. It also crossed a railway line. They found it ran mostly at night, covering more than 60 kilometers (37 miles) in about a week, from the Mumbai park to another nearby park.
The path Maharaja chose is near a new highway and a freight corridor under construction. Researchers said knowing the crossing habits of the big cats could help policymakers make informed decisions about where to build underpasses for animals to reduce accidents.
LIFE NEXT TO BIG CATS
In Los Angeles, lengthy mountain lion research showing the damage of a fragmented habitat has fueled a successful campaign to build a bridge for wildlife over U.S. Route 101, one of the city’s busiest highways. Construction began on April 22.
When the bridge is completed in three years, the bridge will be covered with native plants and special noise barriers to minimize light and noise pollution for nocturnal animals. It will connect Santa Monica Mountains and Simi Hills, increasing the dating pool for resident mountain lions.
But learning to live with cats is a matter of infrastructure decisions human choices, and upbringing.
When Athreya began advocating coexistence with Mumbai’s leopards, she was met with skepticism and opposition from other biologists and policymakers. They thought it impossible for big cats to coexist with humans without significant friction or worse.
“The dominant story was about conflict,” she said. But she helped spark the conversation to “negotiations, which improve the situation for both wildlife and people.”
That’s not to say that living next to a large predator is without danger. In Mumbai, Purvi Lote saw her first leopard when she was 5, on the porch of a relative’s house. Terrified, she ran back inside to her mother. But now the 9-year-old says she’s not scared of the big cats.
Like other children, she doesn’t go out alone in the dark. Children and even adults travel in groups at night, blasting music from their phones to make sure leopards aren’t taken by surprise. But the most basic rule, according to the youngster: is “If you see a leopard, don’t bother.”
AVOIDING DEAD CONFLICTS
Leopards in Mumbai have adapted to primarily prey on feral dogs that often visit garbage dumps outside the forest and usually attack people when cornered or attacked. But in 2010, 20 people in Mumbai died in leopard attacks, said Jagannath Kamble, an official with the Mumbai Protected Forest.
The turning point was the realization that the understaffed forest department couldn’t just continue to respond to personal attacks by catching and transporting leopards to forests since they returned. Instead, it focused on getting humans to coexist with the predators.
Officials roped volunteers, non-governmental groups, and the media into a public education program in 2011. Since then, the death toll has steadily declined, and no one has been killed in an attack since 2017.
The last known victim was Muttu Veli’s 4-year-old daughter Darshini. Veli, an office worker who came to Mumbai in 1996, said Darshini was playing outside their home in a slum on the forest’s edge, and she did not return home. Her mutilated body was eventually found.
“My daughter is gone. She’s not coming back,” he said.
No human deaths have been attributed to mountain lions in Los Angeles, but one non-fatal attack on a child occurred in 2021.
Both cities have learned that catching, killing, or moving the cats is not the answer.
“Displacement and murder make conflicts worse,” said Beth Pratt, regional director of the National Wildlife Federation in California. “It’s better to have a stable population than one where hierarchies and territories are disrupted.”
Avoidance is the safest strategy, she said. “These big cats are shy – they tend to avoid human contact as much as possible. They are extremely introverted people of the animal kingdom.”
Larson reported from Washington, and Ghosal from Mumbai, India.
Follow on Twitter Larson @larsonchristina and Ghosal @aniruddhg1
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