The Misunderstood Big Cats of India

The elusive leopards that lurk the jungles of India and why do they matter.
A sketch of the Indian leopard
A sketch of the Indian leopard

People always ask me which animal gets the most attention in the Indian jungle. The answer is, of course, the tiger, towards whom all cameras turn and who is also the focal point of conservation efforts. With so much community and government attention on the tiger, although fully justified, we have ignored another stunning, enigmatic and skilled predator of the Indian wilds the leopard. I would like to share my experiences&mdashincluding a few peculiar ones&mdashwith leopards across the country. 

Not that leopards are not acknowledged, but the instances are few and far between. Today, this big cat is under threat. A leopard cannot change its spots but humans need to adjust their priorities and give this beautiful cat another chance to survive.

If you are a wildlife bug and happen to be in the southern part of India during the winters, then Karnataka&rsquos Bandipur National Park is the place to be. Several years ago, on a vibrant morning with just a nip in the air, my family and I were proceeding towards a watchtower after alighting from our vehicle when we were stopped by an incredible sight, never replicated before or since. A gorgeous young leopard was walking down the zigzag stairs of the watchtower where it had clearly spent the night and marked his territory. It looked least bothered by our presence and gave us a proud look before passing a mere 15 feet from us and sneaking into the bushes. Of course, a tremor of fear ran down my spine, and I stood there in disbelief at what had happened. What if we had arrived a few minutes earlier and climbed the stairs and encountered the leopard in the tower But unpredictability and impulsiveness are the hallmark of a leopard. You could encounter it in the unlikeliest of spots. Most of the time, I have seen it appear and disappear like a ghost, hardly giving me time to lift my camera and take a decent picture.

The man-killing occurrences in Uttarakhand attributed to leopards are often true. While making a film about leopard attacks in the state, my team and I interviewed the then Chief Wildlife Warden, Shrikant Chandola. Without mincing any words, Chandola said that more humans in Uttarakhand were killed by leopards than by all the other wild animals put together. But should the leopard alone be blamed for the situation The fact is that, in Uttarakhand, just like in several other states, people have encroached upon the leopard&rsquos territory and taken away its prey base. The resulting man-leopard conflict should, therefore, not come as a surprise to anyone.

My own jungle sojourns have offered me many occasions to study the leopard from close quarters. Soon after the Bandipur incident, I was driving uphill from Kaladhungi to Nainital. It was already dark when I spotted a leopard crossing the road in the beam of the car&rsquos headlights. I stopped instantly and turned off the lights. Bizarrely, instead of running away, the leopard started walking towards me and finally sat down near my car. This occurred on several occasions, so much so that it became my habit to drive on the Kaladhungi-Nainital road only after sunset in the expectation of an encounter with the friendly leopard. It was here that I learned 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 kilometres before I could. Just as the vehicle swung into view, the leopard would disappear, always returning to join me by my car.

There is another special leopard, dear to me for several reasons. She was an orphaned cub when I first met her, a hair&rsquos 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. Today, she is comfortably settled in the wild, roaming free with her second generation of cubs in the jungles of India. While some would credit me for her rehabilitation, I learned so much from this creature that rather than feel like I had changed her life, I&rsquom convinced it was she who changed my life forever.

Narrated by the late Tom Alter and playing on the Epic Channel every Friday at 10.30pm, Wilderness Days is a 26-episode show produced and directed by Navin Raheja which takes the audience across India to appreciate and understand Indian wildlife better.

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