leopard in Mumbai
A leopard camera-trapped at Sanjay Gandhi National Park against the Mumbai skyline. Photo: Nikit Surve/SGNP/WCS/WII

The crowd had the leopard cornered. She could see the fear in its eyes. Without a second thought, she jumped out of the taxi and placed herself between the angry crowd and the leopard. She tried to reason with them, but their fear was overwhelming. Fortunately, her quick actions to stop the attack allowed the frightened leopard an opportunity to escape. 

This was not the first time Priya Darshini had seen a leopard in her hometown of Mumbai. They would wander in from nearby Sanjay Gandhi National Park, one of the largest national parks within a metro area. A recent survey identified 41 leopards in the park. Leopard sightings became more and more common as development occurred around the park, gobbling up habitat. In addition to loss of habitat, the leopards were drawn into the city for an alternate food source: Mumbai is known for its large population of street dogs, a tempting meal for a hungry leopard. Priya says that as a child, the attacks on leopards made her very angry with the people. “I always sided with the leopard.” After rescuing the frightened creature, she stayed to talk with some of the people and provide them with contacts and resources they could access when they next encounter a leopard. She was a teenager when she executed this heroic effort, and the experience provided her with a better understanding of the concerns of the people and the depth of the situation. She spoke with two mothers who were fearful the big cats might attack their children. Their families managed livestock which were sometimes preyed on by the leopards. These days, scientists are learning a lot about the leopards thanks to radio collar tracking and camera traps helping them better understand their movements across roads with busy traffic. Of particular interest is how the leopards avoid humans, which could help the scientists propose steps to protect the big cats. 

Priya with an elephant that had been rescued from an abusive situation.
Priya with an elephant that had been rescued from an abusive situation.

Priya’s heroic experiences did not end with the leopard. In Mumbai, it was also not unusual to see Temple elephants in the streets. People would use the elephants for begging by making them do tricks. But the elephants were not treated humanely and many would get hurt roaming the streets. Coming back from work one day, she saw an elephant crossing the street. She asked the man with it for his license, which he could not produce. “I did not let him move with the elephant,” says Priya. “I just stood in front of the elephant until the cops showed up. I called my mum and she came over to help me keep the elephant there by feeding it!” Eventually, the police arrived and filed a complaint with the temple.

One tragic incident involved an elephant that was hit by a truck. The elephant’s leg was fractured and she couldn’t move. Priya sat by her side in the street every day while they decided how she would be moved. These experiences caused her to become an active advocate for banning elephants being used for begging. The Mumbai State Government banned domesticated elephants from the streets of the city in 2007, and the people of Mumbai have become more aware and compassionate about wildlife, and are speaking out on this and other wildlife issues. 

Priya grew up in a giving family: her parents are founders of Jana Rakshita, a non profit organisation that works in pediatric cancer and education for the indigenous peoples of India, with a focus on education for girls. “They brought me into social work very early on and I became a board member in 2004. I was brought up with the idea that as a human being, my duty is to be of service to others. I worked with the non profit and in addition, continued to work with animals.”

Priya worked a lot with stray animals in Mumbai and volunteered with a number of organisations. Many strays get hit by cars in the city. “I carried a first aid kit with me at all times and had a great network of people that were committed to helping animals in need.” 

She assisted a veterinarian Dr Lele after his clinic hours, who donated his time to helping strays. She would help him with these animals, often caring for them pre and post surgery to make sure they were feeling safe. She admits that she brought animals home all the time. 

A stork Priya cared for until it was able to be released.

“We didn’t really have pets as my parents were working a lot, but they could never say no to an injured animal. Both my parents cared deeply for every life without any prejudice” Priya says she brought a diverse array of wildlife home including storks, owls, dogs, cats and crows. 

“We lived in an apartment complex on the sixth floor, and animals would show up outside our front door regularly. Amma would open the door in the morning and say ‘There’s another friend for you!’” 

Soon the security guards and others started helping these animals too. When Priya moved, the security guards asked, “Have you given these animals your new address so they know where to find you?” 

In her later years, she continued to volunteer with various wildlife organisations in India. In a personal capacity, she regularly visited locals in conflict areas, as well as national parks to understand more about the wildlife challenges in those areas. 

She moved from Mumbai to America in 2013. Today she lives in New York City with her husband and fellow musician Max TZ. She was recently nominated for a Grammy for her new album Periphery on Chesky Records. Her love of music has brought her even closer to the natural world. 

“Music comes from nature. I always feel like any music I sing already exists, I am just discovering it. The first songs of music were from the birds and the calls of animals. Every sound of music is in nature. You can hear it in the wind, and the waves, in the rustling of the leaves and the pitter patter of the rain. Even music theory is grounded in nature; when we design an instrument, we are mimicking nature. You cannot take nature out of music, it is one and the same.”

“I remember a time when I was staying in a house alone in the woods for a couple of weeks near Nashville. I was disconnected from everything. I would go out into the forest and sing. One day, as I sat in the woods for my singing practice, I closed my eyes and got lost in the sounds of the wind and the trees. Everything blended so beautifully. Then I heard a rustling of leaves. ‘This is nothing, I said to myself.’ I continued to sing. Eventually as the sound got closer, I opened my eyes to see a mother deer with babies only three to five feet away from me. They were not afraid of me. I think she liked what I was doing and did not see me as a threat. That was my highest complement. It was magical and deeply moving. This experience set intentions for me and my music that I never had before. ”

Priya caring for one of many rescue dogs.

Music, wildlife and nature are a big part of her life. Priya says, “Being a part of the International Wildlife Coexistence Network is such a blessing. It is helping me tie a lot of disconnected pieces together that I am so passionate about. I am connecting these parts of my life together in a way that makes sense and I can bring something to the table.”

Priya is embarking on a new effort to connect people across the world with wildlife and nature. She is currently creating a new song to celebrate the first anniversary of the IWCN next January. “I am looking to create something meaningful that allows people to explore how they relate to wildlife and other species. I would like this song to inspire their thoughts and feelings. Music can connect across languages. We can also communicate with species in this beautiful way, and find music in that connection.

“My vision is to try to bring artists and musicians around the world to be a part of this.” She hopes the song will help get more people connected to nature. Priya believes a lot of the problems in the world are due to being so disconnected and detached: from nature and from other people. ”We don’t realize how similar we are. But in our differences, there is beauty and opportunities to coexist in ways that benefit each other. So many of us live so separately from nature, but if we can bring it to the forefront and have people be part of it again, it will soon start to become a part of our everyday thought process. Even just one little experience can change you forever.” 

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