Los Angeles and Mumbai, India share many superlatives as tops in film, fashion and traffic jams. But another similarity lurks in the shadows, most often seen at night walking silently on all fours.
These metropolises are the only megacities in the world with more than 10 million inhabitants where big cats – mountain lions in one, leopards in the other – thrive by breeding, hunting and maintaining their territory at within the urban limits.
Long-term studies in both cities have looked at how big cats roam their urban jungles and how people can live better alongside them — lessons that could apply to more places in decades to come.
“In the future, there will be more cities like this as urban areas encroach more on 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 have to learn to live with them.”
Highways and fragmented habitatTwenty years ago, scientists in Los Angeles placed a tracking collar on their first cat, a large male cougar nicknamed P1, which was defending a wide swath of the Santa Monica Mountains, a coastal range in and side of town.
“P1 was as big as it gets 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 breed – they won’t tolerate other adult males in their territory.”
Using GPS tracking and camera traps, scientists tracked the rise and fall of the P1 dynasty for seven years, across multiple companions and litters of kittens. “2009 was the last time we knew anything about P1,” Riley said. “There must have been a fight. We found her necklace, blood on a rock. And never saw him again. He was reasonably old.
Since then, Riley has helped glue about 100 other cougars to Los Angeles, creating an extensive database of lion behavior that has helped to understand the territory the cats need, what they eat (mostly deer) , the frequency with which they meet people and what can jeopardize their future.
As with medieval European kings, the greatest threat proved to be inbreeding. Living in small territories separated by highways caused some males to mate with daughters and granddaughters, which naturally could not disperse further. This led to genetic issues such as fertility issues and bent tails.
“Based on genetic analysis, we know that P1 mated with P6, his daughter – this was the first instance we have documented of this very close inbreeding,” Riley said.
Leopards in the urban landscapeIn Bombay, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, leopards are also crowded together: around 50 have adapted to an ideal space for 20 people. And yet, nocturnal cats also mostly stay 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 a member of a research team that recently fitted five leopards with tracking collars.
The leopards’ main range is centered around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, a protected area framed on three sides by an urbanized landscape, comprising a neighborhood that is home to 100,000 people and nearly a dozen leopards.
The researchers addressed specific questions from park managers, such as how cats cross busy roads near the park.
To get the answer, they put a collar on a large male nicknamed Maharaja. They found that he walked mostly at night and traveled more than 37 miles in about a week, from the Mumbai park to another nearby. The leopard crossed a busy national road, using the same place to pass, three times. He was also crossing a railway line.
Maharaja’s chosen route is near a new highway and a freight corridor under construction. The researchers said knowing the passing habits of big cats on highways can help policymakers make informed decisions about where to build animal underpasses to reduce crashes.
Live alongside the big catsIn Los Angeles, long-term mountain lion research showing damage caused by habitat fragmentation helped fuel a successful campaign to build a wildlife-crossing bridge over U.S. Route 101, one of the busiest highways. frequented in the city. Construction began on April 22.
When completed in three years, the bridge will be covered in native plants and include special sound walls to minimize light and sound disturbance to nocturnal animals. It will connect the Santa Monica Mountains and Simi Hills, expanding the encounter pool for resident mountain lions.
But learning to live alongside cats is not just a matter of infrastructure decisions, but also of human choices and nurturing.
When Athreya began advocating for coexistence with Mumbai leopards, she was met with skepticism and rebuffed by other biologists and policy makers. They thought it would be impossible for big cats to live alongside people without significant friction, or worse.
“The dominant narrative was about conflict,” she said. But she helped shift the conversation to ‘negotiations, making things better for both wildlife and people’.
This does not mean that living alongside a large predator is without danger. In Mumbai, Purvi Lote saw her first leopard when she was 5 years old, on the porch of a relative’s house. Terrified, she ran inside to her mother. But now the 9-year-old says she’s not so scared of big cats anymore.
Like the other children, she does not go out alone after dark. Children and even adults travel in packs at night, all playing music on their phones to make sure the leopards aren’t startled. But the most basic rule, according to the youngster: “When you see a leopard, don’t disturb it.”
Avoid deadly conflictsMumbai leopards have adapted to primarily hunt wild dogs that frequent waste dumps outside the forest and primarily attack people when cornered or attacked. But in 2010, 20 people in Mumbai died in leopard attacks, said Jagannath Kamble, a Mumbai protected forest official.
The turning point was the realization that the understaffed forest department could not continue to respond to individual attacks by capturing and transporting leopards into the forests since their return. Instead, he decided to focus on trying to get people to coexist with predators.
Officials enlisted volunteers, non-governmental groups and the media for 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 arrived in Mumbai in 1996, said Darshini was playing outside their house in a slum on the edge of the forest and she just hadn’t returned home. Eventually, his mutilated body was found.
“My daughter is gone. She’s not coming back,” he said.
In Los Angeles, there have been no human deaths attributed to mountain lions, but one non-fatal attack on a child occurred in 2021.
Both towns have learned that trying to capture, kill or relocate the cats is not the solution.
“Relocation and killing escalate conflict,” said Beth Pratt, California regional director at the National Wildlife Federation. “Better to have a stable population than a population 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 really are extreme introverts of the animal kingdom.