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Spotted star of the jungle

 Navin M Raheja |  2016-04-03 19:54:34.0  |  New Delhi

Spotted star of the jungle

Here’s a question for budding wildlife enthusiasts: Which animal gets the most attention  in a forest? Towards whom do all cameras zoom in, to whom do all tourists in a national park gravitate to and who remains the focal point of most NGOs working in a forest?

The answer — the tiger — is predictable, actually. But that is not the point I am trying to make. With so much public and Government attention fixated on the tiger — though for good reason — we have ignored another equally marvelous, mysterious and skilled hunter of the Indian jungles: the leopard.
I would like to share my thoughts — and a few interesting personal encounters — with the leopards in various parts of the country. At some places, they do get the due recognition and importance; but alas, these are few and far between. In fact, the regions where this hunter is fast becoming the hunted are growing by leaps and bounds. And in most places, the leopard finds itself under the crushing wheels of human progress and development.

Sure, a leopard cannot change its spots. But can’t we humans fine-tune our priorities and give another chance to this beautiful cat to survive and thrive?

If you have been bitten by the wildlife bug and happen to be in South India during the winters, then Karnataka’s Bandipur National Park is the place to be. It was on one such clear and bright morning several years ago, with just a whiff of chill in the air; that I, along with my family members, after alighting from our forest vehicle, proceeded towards a watch tower, when, with just a few meters between us, a sight stopped us in our tracks. It was an unbelievable sight, never replicated before or after. A handsome young leopard was walking down the winding stairs of the watch tower where evidently it had spent the night. It seemed  least bothered by our presence. Giving us a haughty look, it passed 15 feet from us and slunk into the bushes. For the next few minutes, I just stood there — scratching my head in disbelief!

Of course, a spasm of fear also blazed through my spine. My two young children, Nayan and Nayana, as well as my wife, were with me. What if we had arrived a few minutes before, climbed the stairs and blundered into the leopard in the tower?

Later, I came to realise that unpredictability is the hall-mark of a leopard. You could stumble onto it at the unlikeliest of places and be confronted by its unusual behaviour. Most of the time, I have seen it come and vanish like the proverbial ghost in the forest, barely giving me a chance to lift my camera and take a few decent shots. Needless to say, every single leopard sighting till date has left me awestruck. Its spell- binding grace never ceases to grip my senses.

A leopard’s characteristic elusiveness could be the reason why enough public support has not been given to it. Consider this — on any given day, most tourists in a national park are not likely to sight a leopard. And what they miss never registers on their consciousness. This may be a simplistic argument, I realise, but going by my decades of jungle journeys, I believe there is much truth to it. What you don’t see, you don’t miss.

It was, of course, Jim Corbett who brought the leopard into the public consciousness through The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag, his classic memoir of a month-long chase to bag the animal which had struck terror in the minds and hearts of millions of people in the hill-state of Uttarakhand.
The book turned out to be an instant bestseller. And though I am an avid Corbett fan, I am of the view that this book shows leopards in a bad light, and even after 70 years it has still not managed to overcome its nasty reputation.

For one, the detailed narrative in Corbett’s book — no doubt the secret of its longevity — made the leopard one of the most feared and often despised figures in the far-flung villages of Uttarakhand.
The man-killing incidents in Uttarakhand involving leopards are often true. While making a film on the subject of leopard attacks there, I and my team members interviewed the then Chief Wildlife Warden, Srikant Chandola. And without mincing words, Chandola held that more humans in Uttarakhand are killed by leopards than by all other wild animals put together.

But is the leopard alone to be blamed for the situation? The sad truth is that in Uttarakhand, as also in several other states, we have encroached upon the leopard’s territory and taken away the prey base which rightfully belonged to it. Deprived of its share of forest cover and food, it started coming near to villages, to prey on dogs and cattle. The resulting man-leopard conflict in these region, therefore, should not surprise anybody.

In the last decade, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai has emerged as another flashpoint of human-leopard conflict. Jim Corbett described the situation most eloquently in the concluding chapter of The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudrapayag, after he killed the elusive maneater. “Here was only an old leopard,” remarked Corbett, “the best-hated and the most feared animal in all of India, whose only crime — not against the laws of nature but against the laws of man — was that he had shed human blood, with no object of terrorising man but only in order that he might live.”

My own jungle journeys offered me many opportunities to study the leopard from close quarters. Soon after the Bandipur incident, I was driving uphill from Kaladhungi to Nainital. It was already pitch dark when I spotted a leopard crossing the road in the headlights of my car. I immediately stopped and switched off the lights. Strangely, instead of running away, the leopard started walking towards me and finally sat down near my car.

This incident was repeated a number of times. So much so, that it became my habit to drive through the Kaladhungi-Nainital road only after sunset, in anticipation of such regular encounters with the same friendly leopard. It was here that I learnt about its amazing auditory powers. As I sat observing it, I found that it could hear the sound of an approaching vehicle several minutes and kilometers before I could hear it, and just when the vehicles  came into our sight, the leopard would disappear suddenly, but always came back to join me by sitting close to my car.

In fact, there is another special leopard — dear to me for several reasons — whom I will reveal to my readers very soon. It is the first recorded leopard rehabilitation story in the world. She was an orphaned cub when I first met her, a hair’s distance away from the jaws of certain death. However, I took it upon myself to continuously visit her every week in the forest for over three years, to teach her the laws of the jungle; and today, she is comfortably settled  in the wild. She is roaming free with her second generation of cubs in the jungles of India. It is not that “I have changed her life, it is she who has changed my life, FOREVER”.

(For already published stories and films on wildlife by the writer, which have run on National Geographic channel, Doordarshan National channel and Doordarshan (India), please log on to www.rahejagroup.org).

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