A night when the leopard proved or disproved that he was a leopard.
“How far is it?” I interrogated. On hearing this, Rajesh took out his torch and flashed it on a leopard who was not more than 20 feet away from us. He was lying down there peacefully with sixteen eyes and two camera lenses starring at him, he was least bothered about our presence.
So here is my question. Is this what a leopard does on seeing humans? What I have read and learnt about leopards, and from a few observations I have had in the wild is a little different. Leopards are very shy and secretive animals who usually run away at the slightest of sound made by humans.
So I hereby narrate the story which makes me think that a leopard’s behaviour in the dark hours is likely to be different than in daylight. A team from BBC had visited Mumbai to film leopards in urban areas for a documentary. I was volunteering for them. We had spotted the leopard and were following it and filming it. The leopard kept walking in front of the car fearlessly, making occasional stops to analyse the surroundings based on the scents.
Usually if you go out on a safari in a national park you would spot a tiger doing so “walking freely” or “just lying casually in front of the vehicle” but “seldom would you spot a leopard doing so.
But that night the leopard was behaving like a tiger. After we had followed the leopard for some time he left the tar road and entered the bush. I arrived at the scene a little late as I was a part of the second camera crew. When I arrived at the scene all I could see was a camera standing erect on a tripod in the middle of the road with Alex and Rajesh around it. I was being asked to walk till the spot without putting on my torch and absolutely no noise. I could see the leopard on the camera screen but could not see him in real. Although I knew he was somewhere in the bush in front of me.
I waited for some time enjoying watching the leopard on the infrared camera screen. All that he was doing was just lying down and moving his head in the direction of sound at regular intervals. It was not possible for me to hold the excitement for anymore time.
Finally I asked Rajesh “How far is it?”
And then I couldn’t believe what I saw. No ways I did expect the leopard to be this close. How could he be so close to us and so calm? There were hundred other questions running in my mind
But there was more than this to follow. I was a volunteer with the second camera team. And by now even they had arrived. In all we were eight people and two cameras standing in front of the leopard. And if you think it was all silent naaah… There was lot of commotion because it was the best shot we got. Now what would one expect the leopard to do?? Run away as soon as possible from the scene right?? But I was proved wrong again as he was happily lying there on his back with all four legs up in the air.
Now comes the incidence where he proved his leopard skills of being in the forest and still not being noticed. That’s how smart a leopard is. He just excels in the game of hide and seek.
So we were tracking the leopard around 2 in the morning based on his roaring . We were at a moment where the leopard would cross the road at any instant. We had a perfect set up lined up. Assuming a centre spot from where the leopard would cross our cars were parked on the two opposite sides along the length of the road. With two infrared cameras set up on either sides one trying to search for the leopard in the thicket and the other one just set on the road.
I would want to specify the amount of light present. It was four days after full moon projecting ample amount of light. Some patches on the road had dimmed light because of the canopy above.
There were two street lights in the scene, one behind the car on one side and one exactly above the car on the other side. Again there were sixteen eyes scanning for the leopard. And the master of camouflage fooled all these characters and crossed the road without being noticed. You may have two questions in your mind and it is my responsibility to answer them. #1 Why did not the camera which was focused on the road capture it? Right before the moment the leopard crossed the road he had made a roar which was very close to the road so the camera was turned to search for him and in this missed the leopard. #2 How do you know if the leopard actually crossed the road? The same camera after it had scanned on one side checked on the other side and saw the leopard walking with pride with its tail raised. I specified about the tail because that is the only thing the camera could capture.
What I would like to conclude from this experience of mine is that a leopard’s behaviour is completely different during the night as compared to daytime. Firstly the leopard is a Top predator in Sanjay Gandhi National park in Mumbai. There is no natural threat to it. Secondly the National park being right in the centre of the city there is a lot of food available outside the park or on the fringes in the form of feral pigs, dogs, cats, cattle carcasses dumped from small scale animal husbandry industries nearby etc. So the leopards have started occupying such areas in search of easy food. And in this process they have come very close to humans and have got used to or rather learnt to live with them. And lost the fear of humans to some extent especially during the night hours. All that we need to do is learn the art of living with leopards. Which is nothing great but taking basic safety precautions like being alert during dawn and dusk hours, avoiding answering nature’s calls out in the open during this time, not letting small kids out during this time and other precautions to follow. The most important precaution is to reduce waste and avoidance of dumping garbage in open, we need proper waste management plans. Because as the garbage increases the feral dog and pig population increases which attracts the leopards.
So the basic point I am trying to make here is we need to master the art of living with leopards, they have already done their bit.
Nikit Surve is from Mumbai and completed his graduation from St. Xaviers' College, Mumbai. He is currently pursuing his Masters degree in Wildlife Science at the Wildlife Institute of India. His research interests lie in man-animal conflict, and he has worked on projects such as camera trapping of leopards and other carnivores, 'Mumbaikars of Sanjay Gandhi National Park', and volunteered for population estimation surveys in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka.