27
Feb
16

Tendua, Baghera, Guldār aur Dipdo!

‘…the real facts are that the leopard is a very important unit in the general scheme of animal life in India…. May the day be far distant – as it undoubtedly will be – when the name of the leopard will have to be added to the long list of wild animals that have been exterminated by the hand of man.’– The Jungle in Sunlight and Shadow (1934) by F. W. Champion

Contrary to what people presuppose, I reflect about leopards, what with F. W. Champion’s words ringing true. In the vein of other wild species this creature too is now being hounded out of its haven.  I haven’t been fortunate enough to sight many. Tigers, yes…………a fair number – with my best being 5 within a span of four hours. A tigress with 3 grown cubs and later (different location within CTR), a solitary adult male.

Leopards? I have heard their rasping cough; noticed their pug-marks but seen only 2 in the wild. It is not that there aren’t any leopards in CTR and surrounding environs. I know reliable people, like my trackers, who have seen them on tree tops. I have heard them in the North Zone area of CTR and photographed their kills in Rathuadhab. Again evidence of their presence in Binsar – courtesy kills and warning coughs. I may even erroneously convince myself that I fleetingly saw one in Pithoragarh.

*

The other day, roused I guess, by the Bangalore episode, somebody asked me as to why I didn’t have any stories about leopards. And that got me thinking, (a) as to when, was the last time I saw a leopard in the wild? And, (b) is this what the future generations will be left with – stories!?

*

Now, I am primarily a ‘tiger person’ – not that I don’t like leopards, but being mostly in tiger territory, leopards are not easy to come by nor are they easy to spot on the ground or tree-tops.

My one-and-only spectacular leopard or Tendua sighting was long ago outside the Corbett Tiger Reserve – just on the periphery of the buffer zone.

*

Those days, Ramnagar was a quaint old railhead-town for Corbett National Park (as it was known then), with its ‘just-wide-enough-for-small-buses’ roads winding their ways towards Almorah, Lansdowne, Kaladhungi, Nanital etc.

The pestilence of resorts and so called eco-tourism hadn’t decimated the beautiful buffer zone of the CTR and the road to Marchula that went past Dhikuli, Garjia and Dhangadi was one of the most delightful that I have ever been on. There was no honking or the zooming past of rabid tourists in their SUVs or any other kind of human hazards on the roads.  Most vehicular traffic would begin to dwindle by evening.

*

I had finished some work at the Bijrani check-post and was on my way to Dhikuli. It was late afternoon with a clear sky. The sun was indicating its departure but the shafts of light were still bright and warm, with darts of orange and yellow filtering through the Sāl trees. Just after Ringora village, there are two culverts or rapptā as they are known in the local language. Like a slithering snake, the road twice makes a half-hearted ‘S’ bend, and on the immediate right of the top end curve, is the mazaar or tomb of Baba Bhurè Shah – also known as ‘Jārat ki Mazaar’ with the protective branches of a huge Banyan tree spread across and over the tomb.

I peddled my way to Ringora and halted at Panwarji’s house for a quick chat and moved on before it became dark.

One had to really slow down to manoeuvre on these culverts. Not only because the minor one was slippery but also because the second and slightly broader culvert was part of an elephant corridor.

Keeping a watchful eye for sudden ‘forest activity’ I quietly negotiated my way up to the second culvert. The ‘Thak thuk! Thuk thuk!’ of a woodpecker sounded somewhere. As I turned in and up onto the last curve of the rapptā – there in front of my boggling eyes, sitting imposingly on the mazaar were two magnificent leopards!

Enthralled I stood frozen in a time zone that seemed to have come to a stand-still. I was staring at them and they were coolly inspecting me. Neither of us moved from our places. As I scrutinized them my mind was working overtime with the adrenaline level rising. It was really difficult to control the urge to turn tail and pedal away in the opposite direction. But that could just rouse them to chase me! Another part of my mind was trying to establish their sex and age. Yet another fraction within me was wondering as to what will happen when the face-off was over? Who would decide to end this and how?

My hands were gripping the cycle handle rather hard and I was also very heroically albeit idiotically (thanks to Dara Singh movies) planning to use the front wheel of the cycle as a shield!

An eternity passed.

 *

All of a sudden (with my internals dropping with a wrench), one of the creatures stood up. It was a female.

She stretched her neck towards me; turned her nose up slightly; inhaled; quivered her upper lips a bit; rasped from the throat; gave me attitude; flicked her tail once and before I could resume breathing, turned and leapt away to disappear into the thickets. Milliseconds later the other pounced away too. And there I was, left all alone with no strength to even scrape-up my organs from the road!

*

Anybody passing by a bit later, would have been aghast to see a man grinning foolishly and prancing around the mazaar. I would, no doubt, be re-certified for a lobotomy!

*

Now, you may call it my misfortune or anything else but I have since that day never spotted another leopard in the wild – anywhere.

I was very lucky that for whatever unfathomable reason, they did not attack. And, let me put this on record that at a personal level and to the best of my limited knowledge and understanding, I find the leopard to be an extremely clever creature. I also believe that it is one of the most agile, spry, intelligent, shrewd and rogue animal.

J. E. Carrington Turner in ‘Man-eaters & Memories’ (1959) notes that, “This characteristic audacity, combined with exceptional cunning, puts Leopards in a class by themselves.”

My maternal grandfather, Pandit Sriram Sharma cites in one of his iconic and path breaking books, “…Par unki rakt-pipasa kabhi shant na hoti, isliye unki khooni ankhein shikar par lagi hi rehti…” – Baghera: Khoon Ka Pyasa from Jungle ke Jeev (1949)

 *

However, the incident that I am sharing this point onwards ensued miles away from Uttarakhand.

It so happened that a friend (the late Mihir) and I used to organize Environment and Wildlife Awareness Camps for school children in the South Central part of Gujarat. Providentially, with the consent of the villagers and the Forest Department we had been allocated a camping site on the outskirts of Jambughoda, fairly close to woodland of teak, mahuda and bamboo. There was a canal on one side of the camp with a hill looming behind it. The forest of Jambughoda is, or at least used to be, home to a large population of many kinds of wildlife. The leopard being the primary predator is still at the top of the food chain.

Generally, all our camps were held between the months of October and February. Depending on the number of school participants, each camp would last 4 – 7 days. Though we had conducted a few that took 10 days, but these were follow-up camps for those who had already attended the basic programmes.

The way it worked out was that we took time off between each camp to re-stock, clean, repair, refurbish and take a little personal time off – primarily to explore and further investigate the surroundings and add to our data bank.

*

That particular year, Mihir and I had been concerned with the movement of a leopard or Guldār or Dipdo within that area. The villagers had sighted the animal and small domestic animals had been killed and taken away. There had been a few nights when the village dogs went berserk.

It so happened, like always, we had our local favourites who always wagged their tails and welcomed us with their happy-to-see-you-again-crazy frolics! They shamelessly settled in like old residents. Most of the children loved to have them around and they made for good watchdogs.

There was Kalu, Bhuria, Chotu and Pinkie (because of her pink nose). Kalu and Chotu were showing signs of age. Pinkie was being tagged by her litter and the father was undoubtedly Bhuria! Pinkie was the favourite of the kids, what with the pups. However, the camp rules were very clear and we saw to it that they were followed stringently. The dogs/pups were not allowed inside tents and no scraps were permitted.

*

Coming back to the leopard.  One of the things that came to our notice was the disappearance of village dogs. Even Chotu went-off somewhere and was never seen again. We searched but to no avail. Presumed killed by the leopard.

The dog in India, especially in Uttarakhand is known as the leopard’s rasgullah or the juicy sweetmeat. They just love dog meat.

We did see pug-marks at time; far away from the camp-site but never-the-less all this added to our unease. It was not just the leopard but there were sloth bears too. Frighteningly ferocious, sloth bears are not nice animals to meet anywhere. However, they remained on the top or other side of the hill that had many bee-hives.

One day, Mihir found some leopard scat fairly close to the camp-site. This was when one of our programmes was ending and all were leaving by the afternoon bus. We had a break of ten days to decide and come to a decision about the threat situation. The forest department were aware of the circumstances but did not really consider it to be a ‘menace’ as the killing of small animals had still not reached a ‘red alert’ percentage. But, it was not comfortable for us because the next batch of children would be arriving soon.

Should we barricade the site? But how? Not only was it an impossible task but fences and walls mean nothing to a leopard. They are expert climbers.

*

There was an unwritten statute that Mihir and I followed. And this was to sleep in the open. Only if it rained did we take shelter inside a tent but otherwise we slept around the campfire that was positioned centre of the camp. Spread all around were durries, ground sheets and sundry mats. Evenings we would sit here with the kids. The ubiquitous pāni ki ketli for tea would always be snuggled in the ambers.

And then, one night, I think it was a late November evening. All our temporary support staff had gone home to Baroda, Jambughoda or Champaner. The only other person besides the two of us was Keshavbhai, an old associate. Retired from the jungle khata, he was our guide and tracker and knew every bit and path of the forest. He was also certain that the leopard was a female with cubs. The only sensible reasoning by anybody so far to the frequent disappearance of dogs.

It had been a bit un-nerving because Kalu had gone missing too. Deep in our hearts we knew that he was dead.

A fairly large wooden box made out of planks had been put together for Pinkie and her pups. This box had been now pushed close to the centre of the camp near the fire. We had decided that the three of us, Keshavbhai, Mihir and I, would keep watch – that one of us would always stay awake.

Mihir had the first watch and it felt as if he woke us up within minutes. I checked the time. It was past midnight and I had been asleep for an hour. We could hear the dogs barking further away towards the village. We knew that the leopard was on the prowl but relieved that it was away from us.

*

The second watch was mine. I sipped a cup of tea; pushed some more logs into the fire; checked the periphery with the flash light. As the barking diminished in the distance so did the uneasiness of Bhuriya and Pinkie.

I don’t know what it was but something made me look towards the canal. Even though I had kept my eyes away from the fire to protect my night vision, I was having trouble identifying what I saw………was it just my imagination? Something extremely low, long and swift crossed from the canal towards the back of our latrines and disappeared into the fields. The forest was quiet and the night was hushed. You couldn’t even hear a cricket.

Keeping my eyes on the field I hissed out a warning and Keshavbhai and Mihir were up immediately. I explained what I had seen. Nothing moved.

And then, Bhuriya got up facing away from the field in the opposite direction. Hair at an end with his body stiff and taut and with a strange soft growl emanating from his throat. Seconds later Pinkie reacted and the pups began to whimper.

We couldn’t see or hear anything! Didn’t know what to do except making the fire burn brighter and larger. We had our torches and lathis ready. Slowly and carefully we scanned the entire camp-site and its edges. We could detect nothing! Not even Keshavbhai.

The dogs, however, were still looking away from the field. Whoever it was – and we were convinced that it was the leopard – must have taken a full circle and come behind us.

*

It was a bit extreme that night with the cat and mouse/cat and dog/cat and man game that went on for hours. The dogs never relaxed but this prowler did not show itself nor was there any sound. We banged sticks, yelled and even lit some more fires. Something was there; but where? We were now thinking of two leopards and had no clue as to what would happen?

Anyway, everything quietened down by 4 am. We were worn-out and the dogs too had stopped growling and were less jumpy. There had been no sound or movement from the forest or fields for a long time. We decided to take a quick nap with one of us keeping an eye out. Kheshavbhai agreed to stay awake and eventually woke us up at 5:30 am. There had been no episode.

It was a beautiful morning. Bhuriya cocked open an eye and went back to sleep. Pinkie thumped her tail and continued to suckle. Keshavbhai went off to the latrine; Mihir to the kitchen tent and I to the administrative tent to recharge the flash-lights. In that moment, there was this terrifying sharp yelp of pain that still rings in my mind. I turned and rushed out and you won’t believe it, but all this while, after tormenting us for hours; literally confusing and exhausting us, the leopard had settled down in a bush near the canal watching and studying us – waiting for that weak moment when we left the camp-site vulnerable.

It happened so fast. Pinkie was in a rage and yelping away to glory protecting her pups. She wouldn’t leave the box. There was a trail of blood from where Bhuriya had been snatched. He was gone.

*

Camp shut early that year. Eventually the leopard was trapped by the forest department. Keshavbhai was right. It was a female with year old cubs.

*

Turned out to be our last camp at Jambughoda. The forest department did not allow any more programmes there. Mihir passed away during a camp at Bakore. Keshavbhai, I am told left to stay elsewhere and Pinkie………………………..

I have often wondered about her and the fact that we had been outwitted totally and most convincingly by one of the most cunning, smart marauder of the forest.


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