There are days in a jungle that only promise tracks of several animals; recent ones to couple of days older. On such days a sighting of an occasional Sambar or a sprinting Nilgai extracts an admiration which it deserved for the whole season. Their adaptations and muscles in winter-coat would match Hercules on that day, their camouflage would be toasted as the greatest evolution of genes and their plight to find food and water would be glorified to that of a seven-summit-mountaineer. It was such a story day when two of my best friends from Bangalore railed to see what sort of job I did in Satpura.
It began with a cheerful discussion on trees, the birds, the Tiger beetles, trail of ants, and the efficient management in Satpura’s buffer forest. This talk was interrupted by a bear’s track that was recent, it had sharp edges as good as prints by homebound cattle. The human-like paw impressions of a plantigrade foot time punched the start of the bear’s day. We drove hell-bent for a black figure in bushes and waited by a waterhole. A last homebound bullock did a royal walk and had its fill.
We drove back to double check the track but fell for a 3-inch wide Python’s track trailing into bushes, snaking a nullah and cutting the jeep-track at several spots. Just when we couldn’t snake any further where the reptile could, a Langur struck distress call to announce the prowl of a big cat and marked the setting sun behind River Denwa. We swam the vehicle through an ocean of lantana weed and arrived at a little peninsula where the monkeys were distressed. We were close to the call and the only path out of the thicket that blanketed the tip of the peninsula ploughed to us. Nowhere could the ‘cat’ have escaped, but the treat of a face to face with a big cat was savored by a pair of Sambar on a parallel peninsula of Denwa backwaters that honked their loud distress.
The chase was exhilarating, the 4×4 was engaged to tune the adrenalin of the alumnus of classmates. We eventually spotliit the rocks and crannies looking for a porcupine. An Indian Thicknee put itself on a rock and used the spotlight beam to fiddle insects. We geared to the exit calling it a drive, I decided to show the night sky through a well wooded forest. I pointed at Orion, Sirius, and Perseus and as I advanced towards Andromeda, a snort behind our vehicle came to her rescue- A porcupine!
I flashed the light at the porcupine on the flanks of the jeep-track, behind it were two other pair of eyes. The rare Porcupine hurried towards our jeep and the other two pairs hesitantly glowed from the flanks. The shivering quills of porcupine stopped just behind the vehicle, a leopard cub that had flushed it out made its bold chase after a second thought. The Porcupine must have felt safe close to the vehicle, but innocence of the leopard cub didn’t give it a break, the rodent flounced its way into the bushes grunting and took refuge of a nullah. The adult Leopard who had been waiting at the flank followed the chase. We heaved back and forth the track but the snorts and the eye shines had married the darkness of the starry night.
The chase had happened so quick and close that all of us were opaque to our cameras! I had my video mode set on the camera and didn’t hit the record button out of excitement. But one of us managed a phone click! That is a consolation for tracking the bear and journey with Python and patience practice with the ‘cat’ flagged by Langurs and to gazing at constellations. We lived happily ever after with stories of jungles that we learned, toasting for the chase by leopards that uncloaked the secretive porcupine under starry night.
In June Daria flew from Moscow to Nairobi, in few hours she prepared things to do list, one that topped was Masai Mara. In the vast stretches of Masai plains where the horizon merges into hills of Tanzania, a stream cut through greened by trees and on one of these trees lazed a leopard whom the guide pointed to Daria. It looked right into them, a leopard in a Lion dominated plains crowned the guide, but Daria wasn’t as excited.
The large fig tree table at Forsyth Lodge hosted the evening with whisky, Daria reminisced the Masai leopard but continued that, ‘I wish the leopard was on ground’. ‘Most leopard sightings in Satpura are on ground, resting either on termite mounds or on rocks’ I praised. As Daria was building her hopes of finding a leopard on ground, a herd of Chital within lodge perimeter threw warning calls.
Evenings later we drove to buffer of Satpura Reserve, Adhaar is an ambassador of this area and our local guide; an instinctive spotter. Our Gypsy ambled up a stream that had pockets of water and sandy bank for spoors of animals, Often a leopard imprints a paw during this hour when the shades of the forest turns darker, when the first nightjars make their sally, when the crickets mic-check, when Vega shines through the leaves and our pupils dilate to see the forest floor. Adhaar infected his excitement of spotting a leopard.
‘On the ground Daria!’ I whispered.
She fires a few pictures at it, and the leopard walks parallel to the road, the road is a gully, the ground eventually rises either side. After a shy protest, the leopard stops behind a bush and crouches. Sensing the leopard’s unperturbed posture, we gave it a couple of minutes keeping the engine on. After preaching everyone to avoid sudden movements we snailed for a better position. A patch of grass carpeted in front of the leopard rolling till the edge of the road and there was enough light for few more pictures but I insisted Daria to take binoculars while I could flirt with her camera. Another five minutes passed and the ghost with the rose walks into darkening bushes and merged. Adhaar and I planned to counter the leopard on an adjacent track, we checked with Daria and gang if they’d be alright while squeezing through the monsoon blanketed forest road. They gave an apprehensive ‘okay’ but when the Gypsy heaved towards a Giant wood-Spider web, Pramod urged to turn around and stick to main track. But we knew another road parallel minus the rankling bushes and tidied spider webs, as we hit the end of this road where it junctions, the same spot-lit leopard walked heads up toward our jeep. It dared ahead of the Gypsy and Daria had her fill of leopard until now.
We later discussed on possible reasons for often seeing a leopard on ground which might be the infrequent movement of Tigers and Wild dogs in our safari area who may compete with leopards, also the terrain being rocky and steep in the highlands and plains undulate which suits for a big cat that is versatile. And I was glad that Daria could find her Leopard on ground.