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Spotted Star Of The Jungle
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While its much-celebrated striped cousin takes the spotlight, the leopard continues to live in as much dignity and grace, despite being pushed to the edge of its existence
Here’sa question for budding wildlife enthusiasts: Which animal gets the maximum attention in a forest? Towards whom do all cameras zoom in? Towards whom do all tourists in a national park gravitate? And who remains the focal point of most NGOs working in a forest?
The answer — tiger — is actually quite predictable. 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 the hunter is fast becoming the hunted are growing in leaps and bounds. And in most such 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 thrive?
If you have been bitten by the wildlife bug and happen to be in south India during winter, then Karnataka’s Bandipur National Park is the place to be. It was one such clear and bright morning several years ago, with just a whiff of chill in the air; when I, along with my family members, proceeded towards a watch-tower and a sight stopped us in our tracks. It was an unbelievable frame, never replicated since. A handsome, young leopard was walking down the winding stairs of the watch tower where it had evidently spent the night. It seemed to be least bothered by our presence. Giving us a haughty look, it passed just 15 feet from us and slunk into the bushes. For the next few minutes, I just stood there, scratching my head in disbelief!
Ofcourse, a streak 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 earlier and blundered into the watch tower?
Later, I came to realise that unpredictability is the hallmark of a leopard. You would stumble upon it at the unlikeliest of places and be confronted by its unusual behaviour. Most of the times, 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 coming 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 would 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 leopard into the public consciousness through The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag, his classic memoir of 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.
Thebook turned out to be an instant bestseller. And though I am an avid Corbett fan, I am of the view that this book put leopard in a bad light, and even after 70 years it has still not managed to come out of it. For one, the detailed narrative in the 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, my team members of Raheja Productions interviewed the then Chief Wildlife Warden, Srikant Chandola. And without mincing words, Chandola held that more humans in Uttarakhand were 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 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-leopards conflict.
Jim Corbett described the situation most eloquently in the concluding chapter of The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudrapayag, after he killed the elusive man-eater. “Here was only an old leopard,” remarked Corbett, “the besthated 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 Kaladhungi-Nainital road only after sunset in anticipation of such encounters. 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 before I could hear and just before it came into our sight, the leopard disappeared suddenly.
My engagements as the Managing Director of Raheja Developers don’t allow me to appreciate the beautifulthough- maligned leopard in the wild as much as I’d like to. But there is one special leopard dear to me for several reasons, which I will reveal to my readers very soon. It was an orphaned cub when I first met her, a hair’s distance away from the jaws of certain death. However, I took upon myself to teach her the laws of the jungle; and today, she is comfortably settled in the wild.
A leopard’s characteristic elusiveness could be the reason why enough public support has not been coming 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
My earlier stories on wildlife and environment, as well as our efforts in this direction through nature documentaries made by Raheja Productions, can be accessed at www.raheja.com. Also those interested in wildlife and environment issues can tune in to our weekly programme Wilderness Days on DD National (every Saturday, 11a.m.) or DD India every Saturday/Sunday worldwide
FOR MORE INFO VISIT : http://www.rahejaproductions.com
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