In 2010, Shaaz Jung, a photographer-by-hobby at that time, managed to capture a regal but battle-scarred &ldquoshadow&rdquo of Kabini in the jungles of Nagarahole Tiger Reserve, Karnataka. As the namesake of the reserve suggests, tigers were the unparalleled stars of the region, that is, before Saya walked into Jung&rsquos frame.
Saya, a male melanistic leopard specimen, singlehandedly revived the interest in leopards across the country. As he dominated many newsfeeds for a long time, people began to ask if Indian states were home to more such leopard habitats.
Considered far more elusive and fast amongst other big cats, leopards are not easy to capture on camera, let alone count. Many conservationists use long-term camera-trap surveys to estimate a number. The snow leopard, for instance, found in the barren deserts of Spiti and Ladakh, is especially difficult to map for snow leopard conservationists. For this reason, conservation goes hand in hand with survey funding.
&ldquoThe biology of large cats dictates that they roam across tens or hundreds of kilometres to find mates and have cubs failing such dispersal, inbreeding and, with it, extinction is imminent,&rdquo Vidya Athreya, an ecologist and a senior scientist at Wildlife Conservation Society, India mentions in her article for Scientific American.
This explains the curious cat that strays from the dense forests and ventures into territories far.
The Cat That Was God
Despite living in shadows, leopard&mdasha nocturnal predator&mdashtends to roam the agricultural lands of various Indian states, such as Maharashtra.
However, all contact does not mean conflict. Between 2018 and 2019, researchers from WCS-India, NINA, Norway, Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, Norway and supported by Wildlife Conservation Trust conducted a study on the Warli community&rsquos interactions with leopards in Maharashtra. The study, conducted across Mumbai Suburban, Palghar and Thane districts of Maharashtra, found over 150 shrines of Waghoba.
Waghoba, a tiger/leopard deity, is worshipped by the Warli indigenous tribe in the country. According to the Warli legends, Changdevi, the village chief&rsquos daughter, gave a virgin birth of a &ldquowagh.&rdquo As the wage grew up to become a ferocious beast, he began to attack the village cattle. Enraged, the villagers sought to kill him. Scared by such rumours, Changdevi devised a negotiation where villagers would worship the Waghoba in exchange for his return to the forest. Additionally, the villagers would offer annual cattle sacrifices to satisfy its spirit.
This legend tells the tale of leopard-human co-existence before the industry landscapes took over and depleted the natural habitat of many big cats.
Saya&rsquos story is a great example of how the &ldquoshadow&rdquo is ready to move out of the shadows of a tiger-centric conservation policy in India. As conservationists from Nagarahole Reserve and Wildlife SOS work towards stabilizing the population of ghost-like leopards, there is hope for the revival of their numbers. Still, a lot more funding needs to go for areas where human-leopard existence turns into violence and natural habitats succumb to industry and infrastructure expansion.
Kabini Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka, Jawai and Jhalana in Rajasthan and Satpura National Park are some of the most famous sanctuaries to spot a leopard.
Cover Photo Indian Leopard (Panthera pardus fusca) at Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan.Credits Shutterstock
Also See In Search of the Sri Lankan Leopard