I have a unique tempestuous relation with Leopards. These elusive big cats of India have always put me on tenterhooks. Amongst all big wild cats of India, Leopards have eluded me the most. India had numerous species of wild cats. They come in all shapes and sizes, right from royal Bengal tiger to fishing cat to marble cats to the snow leopards. India is known for tigers. It is national animal of India. India houses the highest number of wild tigers. Another unique big cat in India is the Asiatic lion. It was once national animal of India. In India, lions are found only in the state of Gujarat. Today, I will focus on cat; I call the “Ghost” thanks to their ability to disappear into thin air. Literally! The reason why I call them the ghost is for the fact that I have missed their sighting even when they were close to me. I just did not see them around. Let me jolt down few interesting experiences.
Nagzira, back in 1990’s. I was on jungle excursion with my father. It was twilight. In the thickets, the leopard was walking along our ambassador car. Everyone saw the leopard, I did not. Maybe it was the twilight effect or maybe I was too young. It is faded memory.
Melghat late 1990’s. The road to Seemadoh in Melghat tiger reserve via Paratwada crosses through place called Ghatang. This location marks diversion into Chikhaldara hill station and other towards Seemadoh. At this point of diversion, there is hand pump. We have seen a lot of wildlife around this point. One fine evening on way to Seemadoh, I was seating alongside driver and my dad’s junior office colleague in ambassador. When we reached Ghatang junction, a leopard was drinking water at that very hand pump. Our chauffer saw it and so did the officer. I was sleeping in front seat. By the time I opened my eyes, the animal hunkered down back into the valley. We waited for some time to see if it comes back. It never did.
Melghat, Oct 2014. I was travelling with family from Seemadoh to Chikhaldara enroute Memna. Earlier on that morning, we had heard of leopard sighting along the road. He was attending old carcass emanating foul odor. We did not see anything in morning nor did we smell anything. In the evening on our way down to Seemadoh, on the same windy road, we all inhaled pungent smell that disgusted us. I knew it was some rotten dead animal. After waiting for some time, based on wind we could judge the direction of smell. We played waiting game. We heard distress calls of chital deer as well. We waited eagerly for some action to happen. I was sure it was the leopard. No luck!
Tadoba November 2015. Bad luck struck me thrice in single excursion. It was end of our first safari. On our way back from evening safari, a few kilometers before Moharli gate, Leopard crossed road in flash of second. I was reviewing images on camera and I missed it. Since that day, I stopped reviewing camera images until I came out of safari gate. Second safari, which was in morning, a gypsy ahead of us saw leopard hoisting his kill on tree and we missed it. Third safari (evening) we started from the same spot. I saw my first ever leopard kill hoisted on tree, that too right next to the road. Never saw the leopard. I am sure the Ghost was resting somewhere around. At the end of third safari again just before Moharli gate, leopard crossed the road while I was sipping water from bottle by looking at the sky. With leopards, everything happens in split seconds.
Bandhavgarh November 2017 and Corbett February 2018, In both cases we saw leopard kill hoisted on tree far inside thickets. We used to hear repeated calls but never saw the leopard. In Corbett, I was at Sarpduli guesthouse. I was accompanied by my wife, wife’s friend, forest department personnel posted at guesthouse and pair of Jackal. It was terrifying experience. It was pitch dark at night with minimum solar power based lights. We could hear river Ramganga meandering through rocky mountains behind and jackals kept howling often. The kill was not more than 2kms away along straight line. At night, we could hear deer calls from same direction but never saw the leopard.
December 2017, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai. The leopard walked right behind my room. It walked along the nullah at our VIP guest rooms. Second evening that is 31 December 2017, we again heard langur calling and saw them jumping tree to tree. The chital deer calling frantically but to no vail. Again wee hours of morning same distress calls like first night. No sighting just sense of some movement and fear. I have written a blog on this experience. Do read it for details. Link shared at end of this blog.
My luck awakened after almost 50 safaris. The forest was Tadoba at a place close to temple of Taru lord, called Panchdhara. This was sighting triggered by tigress T12 and her two cubs. The moment three of them entered Panchdhara the leopard sitting in the bushes ran for his life. The leopard came out of hiding, and climbed straight to the top of the tree. I have dedicated one complete blog this experience as well. Link shared at end of this blog.
My second leopard sighting happened again at Tadoba. This lasted for few seconds but thrill was amazing. I just loved the experience. It was a leopard cub. You will never see a leopard cub alone in open. The cub’s mother had already crossed road. The moment the cub saw the safari vehicle approaching it did not cross road instead it ran backwards, crouched and hid itself. I had to think like him in those few seconds. This is where understanding of animal behavior comes into picture. I knew it would cross the road if everyone goes mum for some time. By everyone I mean, the canter with 17 tourists, our gypsy, the gypsy next to our and one on the other side. I took liberty and instructed everyone to keep mum to see the cub. Everyone obliged. I knew this could be only chance to shoot leopard cub running and crossing road. I had to predict his movement too. I did mental calculation and I was ready with camera. It did cross the road in two jumps within few minutes. I managed to get the shot of leopard cub running and crossing the road.
I am sure by now you must have gauged why I call them ghosts. Leopards are very elusive and very shy. Unlike many tigers, few leopards are known to be tourist friendly. They are very adaptable by nature. The fact they thrive within city like Mumbai is testimony to their adaptability. They also survive in villages with huge farmlands around forest. They even give birth to cubs in farms. They enter cities to feed on stray dogs. No wonder this closeness has resulted in increase of man-animal conflict. Leopard mauls human not by choice but by force. The leopards just like the tiger are territorial and they need space to grow. We have encroached the home of this wild spirit. It is time we give them the space they need. I just hope and pray that I keep seeing these Ghosts grow in number and my affair with the free spirit goes on forever.