It was late in the night, and I was busy comparing pictures of leopards on my laptop. Leopards have rosette patterns which are unique to each individual and can help identify them. It was tough to concentrate, though, as I kept hearing the eerie call of a barn owl. Just as I leaned out of my window to photograph the owl with my smart phone, it rang. Off went the owl into the night!
The caller was my friend, Jadhav. “Nikit, hurry! There is a leopard sitting in front of me!” he said.
I wondered how somebody could make a call if there was a leopard in front of them! I got my answer, “It’s sitting on a wall. I can see it from my window.”
I rushed to his place on my motorbike. Jadhav lived near the western boundary of Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP). The forests of SGNP are unusual. They are situated right in the heart of Mumbai and Thane cities. There are at least twenty thousand people per square kilometre living on the periphery of the Park. Despite this, the forests bustle with incredible biodiversity. From Jadhav’s apartment, one can see the National Park hills and a twenty-foot boundary wall separating the jungle from the colony road.
It was on this wall that he had spotted the leopard earlier. I went up to his apartment. The distance between the wall and his window was about seventy to eighty metres. The apartment had an added advantage of being on the fifth floor. From this safe distance, Jadhav and I saw some kids trying to chase away a group of dogs, completely unaware that a leopard was lurking just behind the wall.
“Nikit, can’t the officials take away these leopards? They are so dangerous!” I was not at all surprised by his statement. In fact, before I had started researching leopards, I had been of the same opinion, too.
I remember the first month of my research, which involved roaming around SGNP looking for evidence to suggest the presence of leopards. This was usually in the form of scat or scrape marks. One day, after a tiring walk in Mumbai’s humidity, my field assistant Subhash and I decided to take a break.
I found a Ghost tree (Sterculia urens) to serve as a back rest. The tree’s bark had leopard claw marks on it. Our presence must have disturbed a Shikra because it suddenly burst out of the tree and was now being chased by a Racket-tailed drongo. In this commotion, I could discern a different sound, that of footsteps. Instantly, I felt a rush. Could it be a leopard? I had just seen fresh scat on the trail.
I excitedly turned to Subhash and asked, "Leopard?" I got a tongue-in-cheek reply. “Yes, a two legged leopard.” It turned out to be a middle aged man. He was thin and wrinkled, but had very youthful eyes. He belonged to the Warli tribe which lived in these forests. On his head was a big stack of dry karvi stems. These stems were used by the Warli to build their houses. The walls are later plastered with mud and cow dung, to keep the house cool.
The man ignored my greeting. After looking me up and down, he turned to Subhash. They spoke to each other in Marathi and I pretended not to understand. The man was making fun of my research work. “What do these guys understand about leopards,” he scoffed. A bit annoyed, I asked him, “Since you know so much about leopards, why don’t you show me where they are?”
The man asked us to follow him to his house, which was in a hamlet inside the Park. There are about forty to fifty tribal hamlets within the Park's boundary. He showed us a place that he claimed was visited by a leopard every other night. This was hard to believe, as the place was a small lane between two huts.
I was certain he was trying to fool me. It was only after I set up a camera trap and got the image of a leopard in it the next day, that I realised he was telling the truth. This is how I came to know Parshuram. And from that day on, I started going to the forest with him. We fondly referred to him as 'Parshu mama'.
Camera trap image of the leopard next to a tribal hut.
The strong smell of coffee brought me back to the present and to Jadhav’s question about catching these 'dangerous' leopards.
“Would you believe me if I said that the leopard is like a God for some people who live in this very forest? They worship leopards!”
Jadhav looked unconvinced. So, I shared with him the story of how I had come to learn this amazing fact.
One day, Parshu mama and I were at a waterhole that was frequented by various animals. I was busy observing some tracks in the mud that may have been made by pigs. But suddenly, I sensed some movement on the trail next to the waterhole. Looking up, I froze. It was a leopard!
Awe, fear, and amazement all ran through me at once. I could hear my heart beating in the silent forest evening. I turned to Parshu mama and whispered, “Wagh!” But he was standing still, his eyes shut and was murmuring something.
I turned to the trail again but the leopard had disappeared. I wanted to go and look for it, but couldn’t gather the courage. I waited for Parshu mama to finish what I thought to be prayers. He said this was his first sighting since Padwa (New Year's day according to the Hindu calendar).
A Waghoba Shrine enroute Asherigad.
“We worship a big cat deity known as Waghoba, a deity in the form of leopards and tigers. He protects us and our livestock from evil. We consider Him to be the guardian of the forest. You must have seen the Waghoba temples and shrines that we make for worship” he explained.
As I finished my story, I looked out of the window to see if the leopard had returned. It hadn't. The children too had left for their homes “Oh, so these guys are not scared of them?” enquired Jadhav.
“No. They have been living with the animal since generations. They understand and respect it.”
Jadhav kept his coffee mug aside. “But we don’t live in the forest! Apart from the Warlis, I'm sure nobody wants the leopards around.”
“Let me tell you another story. This is not about a forest, but a totally different landscape – one where people have no clue about leopards. We were doing a survey in Akole, Maharashtra. Akole had been a drought prone area for a very long time. It was only after canals were built, bringing in water from rivers, that people started practicing sugarcane farming. A sugarcane crop is allowed to grow for about a year and half before being harvested. During this time, it is not disturbed. No one ventures into the field, making it the perfect place for a leopard to make its home."
I continued with my story, and Jadhav sat in rapt attention.
"Once, leopard cubs were found in one such field, and we rushed to the spot. People were working in the field. So, we decided to keep the cubs safe until evening and then release them with the help of the Forest Department. As the sun went down, we placed the three cubs in an open crate, left it near the fields and waited to see if the mother would turn up. Since it was a full moon night, we could keep an eye on the cubs from Daate kaka’s house, a short distance away. Soon the beautiful mother leopard emerged from the field and took the cubs back with her. There were some villagers waiting with us. The moment they saw the cubs being taken to safety, a wave of excitement ran through the entire house.
Screen grab from a video where the mother returns to take her cubs. Source : Wildlife SOS (follow the link below for the original video)
I was surprised. These same cubs might grow up and kill their livestock! When I checked with Daate kaka he said, “Beta, Akole was a drought prone zone. The sugarcane came thanks to the canals. It got us prosperity. But along with the sugarcane came the leopard. The leopard has an equal right to the sugarcane as I do. It is not even asking for profits. All he wants is some space to survive.”
Jadhav interrupted, “Nikit, your story reminds me of an instance from my village in Sawantwadi district. Once, a leopard took away a stray dog whom we used to feed regularly. I have heard of a lot of cases where a leopard attacked dogs or livestock.”
“True, leopards kill domestic prey as it is easily available around humans. But let me tell you an episode from your own Sawantwadi. We had gone there to see a Waghoba shrine, when we witnessed something unusual. A big pooja was organized in a village. People came in huge numbers. We were told it was because of a leopard cub.”
Preparation for the Waghoba Pooja
Singing performed as a part of rituals during the Waghoba Pooja.
Jadhav had a puzzled look on his face.
“Yes,” I continued. “I was puzzled too. I approached a man hoping he would be able to answer my questions. He turned out to be the village Sarpanch. He said, “We are celebrating the return of our Waghoba.” He kept repeating, ‘Aamcha waghoba parat ala,’ with a wide smile on his face. They were happy they had found a leopard cub after eighteen years.”
I could see a change on Jadhav’s face.
“I wasn’t aware of all these aspects related to leopards and humans,” he said. “I guess leopards may not be as bad as they are made out to be. There are two sides to everything. Sure, there are conflicts, but…”
Jadhav's sentence trailed off as the leopard below became visible again in the diffused street lights. It was stalking a dog adjacent to the wall. It was about to pounce when the headlights of an approaching car gave away its position. The dogs chased the leopard back onto the wall. Jadhav was watching the drama with keen interest. Maybe tonight’s stories had made him look at the leopard a little differently. I sure hoped so!
P.S. Some of the images are representational images to suit the blog. The names mentioned are fictous names given to the actual characters. This article authored by me was first printed in a small book for kids - People and Wildlife. The book is available on Amazon.
By Nikit Surve
(Nikit has been with us since 2015 and has been conducting research on human-leopard interactions in Mumbai.)