A few months ago, I spotted six leopards during a single night. I had seen these wild cats once before in 2016. But I had forgotten to press the “record” button on the camera. And I had nothing to show for it. People tell me that I was lucky to be there – experiencing the moment. But, it is not how I want to remember the important stuff. When I grow senile, I do not want to arrange matchsticks on a piss-stained bed to relive snapshots of precious moments. I would rather look at some photos and videos.
Gung-ho about striking luck a second time, I had visited the hill station of Valparai earlier this February, with Jerome – the chap who escaped unhurt in my life-changing Gaur incident of 2013. We were accompanied by Asirvatham, the man at the wheel and our guardian angel, and Nitesh – a wildlife conservationist.
Valparai is home to Great Indian Hornbills and a wide range of fauna, including at least 4 types of wildcats. It has been a favorite stomping ground of mine for spotting migratory birds and endemic mammals such as giant squirrels, gaurs, tahrs, elephants, and stripe-necked mongooses. But I did not see many of them on the way to the town, like I used to.
It was as though I had returned home to find the couch exactly where I had left it. And the person, I wanted to catch up with, was hiding under it.
With day 1 coming to an end, we decided to take a drive during the late evening hours. We were given fair warning by Frank Benjamin – a friend and the owner of a beautiful cottage in Valparai. He is also an animal rescue specialist, a herpetologist, and one of the nicest people I have met. Frank, without hesitation, told us it was not a good idea because of the recent conflicts involving snakes, elephants and leopards. I was persistent, though. Frowning his eyebrows but letting out a grin, he told us about all the areas to be avoided, and the few places we could explore.
Starting off, barely a few kilometers into it, we saw an Indian Porcupine. It had us excited. However, with the exception of a few Black-Naped Hares and Barn Owls, there was no sighting for the next two hours. It started to get dark, and many of the local residents and tourists were ready to call it a day. Grabbing a quick dinner at the nearest sign of civilization, we moved along. We heard the trumpeting roar of an elephant at a fair distance. I shuddered because I have no interest in encountering them after sundown; bears and gaurs neither. These beasts can be hot-tempered, and given my inbuilt human tendency to annoy and disrupt – it would be a recipe for disaster.
I have seen the #IndianPorcupine a couple of times, but I have never photographed one. Notoriously shy – when they realize they are spotted, they run away as fast as their stubby legs can carry them. We startled this one, and he made a face before turning around and scurrying into the bushes. #wildlifevideos
Driving through a tea plantation, the car’s headlights shone on a furry phantom crossing the road. Upon inspection, and as elation filled my lungs, we realized it was a Brown Palm Civet. Wearing a velvet coat of storm clouds, like some pint-sized panther on the prowl, it disappeared into the darkness.
A few kilometers from there, Nitesh motioned for the car to stop. Without saying a word, he got down and surveyed the thick bushes. Suddenly, he darted back to the car window. Squeezing a scream into a murmur, he said, “leeeeopard, bro”.
I am not sure what I did upon hearing him. All I know is it took me too long to grab the camera. I missed the leopard – by seconds. I was miffed, and it showed on my face. Nitesh assured me that we still had a fighting chance.
About 30 minutes later, we reached the outskirts of a village. We parked by the side of a small bridge, and sat inside the car. Taking turns to raise our torches, we looked around for neon-green lights. As they do with our species during the day, the brightness of deceit in the eyes give away animals at night.
Suddenly, we had a déjà vu as Nitesh lifted his hand and signaled for us to remain hush. We heard the sound of leaves rustling on the ground, as though a formidable force had awakened them. A pack of wild boars were foraging in the garbage dumped by the locals near the edge of the forest. Hope and fear are odd bedfellows when they compete for attention. Unsure of the source, we kept our ears open. The stillness was broken by Nitesh as he tapped me on the shoulder, and pointed away from me.
“Leopards,” he whispered again.
It did not register in my head that he had mentioned them in the plural form. In fact, I had no idea what he was talking about. I caught a glimpse of some movement, but nothing which resembled a leopard. I was convinced he had mistaken a jungle cat for its larger cousin.
Finally, I saw a pair of flickering lights. I locked my eyes with them. Jerome and Asirvatham were beaming their torches in its direction. At last, I could clearly see the head of a fully-grown Panthera Pardus Fusca. Smirking like a mad Cheshire cat, I pressed the red button on the camera, and I double-checked the LCD screen to be sure the video was being recorded.
For the third time, Nitesh uttered the magical word.
“Two more leopards!”
We deliberated on getting out of the car. On one side, we could take a closer look. On the other, we might crap our pants and die. Still, against better judgment – we nervously stepped outside. Noticing this, the three leopards moved towards the boars – a few feet away from where we stood. Immediately we moon-walked to the vehicle. There was no debate. Nobody should be a nuisance at the time of their demise. When we go, we should go silently. A graceful exit is the best epitaph.
I was secretly hoping for a live assault on the boars, though. It may have been a loud and painful departure for them, but it would have made for a pretty cool video. Fearing death by leopard or humiliation due to a blogger’s YouTube page, the alpha male led his troops towards the village. Presumably peeved off, the leopards sat down and stared at us.
Then, upon hearing a rustling sound, Asirvatham perked up to flash his torch behind them. Craning our necks, we caught a glimpse of a row of green lights. We could have confused them for fireflies if we were not already sure that luck was on our side.
“Bro, more leopards”
I was as delirious as I was confident. A ghost of the dearly departed could have walked up to me, and advised me about letting go. It would not have seemed out of place. A centaur could have drop-kicked me in the nuts, and told me it was all a dream. I would have believed him. Because there were six leopards within a few feet of each other. How I did not suffer a cardiac arrest or why I did not break down crying is beyond me.
It was too much, really. I am going to be 37 years old this year. Over a decade older than that depressed kid from the movie – American Beauty. But I can still relate to him.
“Sometimes, there is too much beauty in this world, and I feel I can’t take it anymore.”
Well, it is how I felt back then. Now, I am pretty sure I can take it. But if the opportunity does not present itself again, I have six reasons to be okay with it.
That black panther in the Nilgiri hills is not going to spot itself this winter, you know.
the story begins.
to be a bit of a mess.
How the next one
is anyone’s guess.