Elusive hunter

The leopard is unique in that it can live in every kind of habitat, including human-dominated landscapes, sugarcane fields, rocky outskirts, evergreen patches, and dry zones.

Published : May 14, 2014 12:30 IST

“Now you are a beauty,” said the Ethiopean. “You can lie on the ground and look like a heap of pebbles. You can lie out on the naked rocks and look like a piece of pudding-stone. You can lie out on a leafy branch and look like a sunshine sifting through the leaves; and you can lie right across the centre of a path and look like nothing in particular.”

—How the Leopard got his Spots, Rudyard Kipling

SEEING is believing, even if it looks incredible. And an incredible spectacle presented itself in a housing colony in Goregaon, Mumbai, in February, when a leopard, a dreaded predator, was chased away by a stray dog. It reminded one of the saying that a cornered rat will stand up to a cat.

The leopard, a “grey ghost at night” and an “animal of darkness travelling alone even in night”, had intruded into the housing colony, perhaps looking for a dog. For it has a predilection for dog’s meat. Hunters from a bygone era talk about the stunning and silent way in which leopards can throttle dogs to death without allowing them even to cry out. British gazetteers talk of leopards hiding in villages, looking out for dogs. Usually dogs tremble with fear at the sight of leopards. But the resident dog of the Goregaon colony started barking in a towering rage, unnerving the predator, which fled with its tail between its legs. Though there were no eyewitnesses to the incident, surveillance cameras installed in the compound had telling images. The residents of the colony were thrilled with Rocky, the dog, and renamed it Tiger, for only a tiger can catch a leopard.

There are five large cats in India: the lion, the tiger, the leopard, the snow leopard and the clouded leopard. The leopard is unique in that it can live in every kind of habitat, including human-dominated landscapes, sugarcane fields, rocky outskirts, evergreen patches, and dry zones. Because of the wide range of its prey, it is remarkably more adaptable than the tiger. Leopards can climb trees very easily. Tigers like water and get into pools to cool themselves during summer. But leopards avoid water. They do not like swimming. But if compelled to, they can swim like a tiger.

The leopard’s coat is very attractive. Its patterns range from pale yellow to deep gold with black rosettes (spots). There are melanistic individuals too. One of the brightest pictures of such a leopard is from a camera trap set up in the Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala. The black spots on the leopard were seen closely packed to give it a totally different look. This happens because of the presence of the dark-coloured pigment called melanin in the skin. Though more adaptable, the leopard seems to lack something the tigers possess in abundance: a majestic charm. “Look at tigers, what an innocent gaze they have,” says the eminent field biologist George Schaller. His monumental work The Deer and the Tiger is a study of the ecology and behaviour of tigers in the Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh. Tigers are epitomes of charisma and innocence. Some look dreamy while others look romantic, charming our hearts. In some wildlife sanctuaries, tigers roam around like domesticated cats.

Leopards, though graceful in appearance, are devoid of such endearing qualities, it seems. They are habitual offenders in the sense that they often come very close to human habitations and even attack people occasionally, striking terror in the hearts of people. But tiger attacks are rare and people have built up a fine rapport with these big cats. Leopards have now become a menace in many parts of India, especially in the north. They drag off children from their cradles, attack adult men and women, and target cattle. They intrude into villages and towns mainly because of the loss of their natural habitat and prey. Jim Corbett, the hunter-turned-conservationist, had a deep understanding of the behaviour of big cats like the leopard and the tiger. Even though there were man-eating tigers during his time, his heart felt for the tiger and he called them “large-hearted gentlemen”. But he ferociously hunted and killed leopards, trekking treacherous paths and unmindful of sleepless nights. His epic struggles are described in his TheMan-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag . Only the snow leopard of the Himalayas, mysterious and highly elusive, evokes romantic appreciation.

N.A. Naseer, the eminent wildlife photographer, has been tracking leopards throughout south India. “I have seen many of them at close range in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, especially in Bandipur and Mudumalai. Some are shy and elusive and some, at the very sight of man, slip into the jungles like a fugitive fleeing from justice. But a few will stare back at you and sometimes the diabolic expressions on their faces can be frightening.”

“The ghost of a leopard still haunts us,” says Sushant Sharma, Divisional Forest Officer in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. Immortalised in the annals of modern Indian history as the place where the First War of Independence erupted, Meerut had the macabre experience of a leopard prowling the town in February 2014. It was one of the worst leopard strikes in the area in recent times and schools and colleges were closed for three days. Life came to a standstill and the town looked deserted like a graveyard. People felt the leopard was breaking open doors and windows at will, reminding them of the man-eater of Rudraprayag which killed more than 125 people and which Jim Corbett killed on May 2, 1926.

A massive hunt was launched to trap the leopard in Meerut. Armed Forest Department and police personnel were brought in but the leopard managed to evade them. Later, it surfaced three times in nearby villages. People are still on the alert, watching their steps and looking around when going out. Though there were no casualties, the leopard had mauled many people in the town.

In April 2014, a leopard strayed into the Manipal University campus in Karnataka. It was the watchman who first saw the animal in the morning. Later it barged into the canteen and then disappeared. Police and Forest Department officials were pressed into service. It was later trapped and released into the Kudremukh Wildlife Sanctuary. In January 2012, a leopard strayed into Guwahati town and was on the rampage for hours. It killed a man and badly mauled another. The town came to a standstill for many hours.

Sanjay Gubbi, a scientist with the Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation, has been studying the ecology and behaviour of leopards in Karnataka. The team under him has documented leopard strikes in 214 villages since March 2008. Two hundred instances of livestock lifting, 45 instances of injuries to humans and five deaths have been reported so far. The leopards stay close to human habitation if the environment is favourable. Mysore, Hasan, Tumkur, Udupi and Ramnagar are the five districts most affected.

Valparai in Tamil Nadu has also seen leopard attacks. Two years ago, Malakappara, adjoining the area, witnessed a horrible death.

Vidya Athreya, a Pune-based ecologist, has studied leopards in Maharashtra, using camera traps and radio collars. She says that they usually come out of the forest to openly defy us and search for dogs. There have been occasions when they have got into bathrooms in towns or sat on police station walls in Mumbai. In human settlements, they usually move around in the night. Farmers have complained about their cattle and dogs being snatched away by leopards. Leopards have been seen coming out of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai. There have been conflicts on the periphery of the park.

Such attacks are common in many villages and towns in India. Though accurate statistics are not available, Forest Department sources say that more than 500 persons have been killed by leopards since 1982. The worst attacks have taken place in Garhwal, Kumaon and Chamoli districts of Uttarakhand, a State that has a high population of leopards. Poaching is the main reason for the reduction in the leopard’s prey base and naturally it is forced to prowl the villages, says A.J.T. John Singh, the eminent wildlife biologist. Studies show that leopards are more dangerous than tigers because of their boldness and cunning. A man-eating leopard is more dangerous than a man-eating tiger.

The human-wildlife conflict in many parts of India has attracted the attention of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. In September 2013, the Ministry conducted a workshop in Delhi to discuss the various issues. Shakti Kanduri, I.G., Wildlife, in the Ministry says that “Gujarat is doing well, including in the rescue and rehabilitation of animals, especially leopards. In Maharashtra, leopards are part of the sugarcane ecosystem. But cases of conflicts have come down.”

I had the occasion to travel with Naseer during his “hunt” for leopards with his camera in the Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary. He saw his first leopard in the Orukkomban area near Kuriankutty, where there was a tramway to Chalakudy to transport timber. This area is rich in birds and had captivated the late Salim Ali during his bird surveys in 1930.

Twenty years ago, when Naseer was travelling in a jeep, he saw his first leopard. It was crossing the road. Though it got dazzled by the light of the jeep, it quickly disappeared. Says Naseer, “Tigers are cool in their approach. But leopards are not. Tigers have a charming gaze. But leopards are aggressive and do not like man’s presence. But I had a rather unexpected experience in Mudumalai. Two leopards were on a tree and though they were slightly disturbed by my presence, they sat still for quite some time, allowing me to photograph them.”

“Look at this fur,” Mark Davidar said once. It was the fur of a leopard which had slept in the chair kept in the veranda of his half-a-century-old little house in Masinagudi adjoining the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. He was living alone, to observe the wild tuskers that frequented the area (“Extended family”, Frontline , December 30, 2011).

Leopards frequented the area, and often drank out of the concrete tank in the compound which was filled with water. Mark Davidar used to spend hours watching them. “And you know what happened later? My four pet dogs were eaten by leopards.” Mark died a year ago.

Leopards in India , written by J.C. Daniel, former Secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), narrates a variety of experiences of British army officers and hunters and their adventures in the forest. Many of them had encounters with leopards and tigers.

An interesting incident is narrated by Maharaja Ramsingh Bahadur of Pratapgarh in Rajasthan. There was a trough containing water placed outside his palace. A leopard used to frequent the trough to drink the water. One day, the raja mixed liquor with the water. Gradually, the leopard got used to the taste of the mix and began to acquire a liking for it. The raja then gradually increased the liquor content in the trough. At last, the leopard got intoxicated and started killing cattle nearby. Naturally, the villagers were up in arms and it is believed that the leopard was killed.

G. Shaheed is Chief of Legal and Environment News Bureau of Mathrubhumi in Kochi. N.A. Naseer is a freelance wildlife photographer based in Udhagamandalam.
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