For someone who has essentially grown in the hills of Northern India and been on a steady diet of Ruskin Bond, a rendezvous with the leopard happens often, be it around the corner of dirt roads or the deeply imaginative spots of the mind.
The elusive cat has also been the star of much of Corbett’s writings too, a lot of which focus on man-eaters. Strangely, his writings never vilify man-eaters for me; I only see the connection of a man who deeply loved and understood the forest like few. The Binsar wildlife sanctuary near Almora in Uttarakhand is home to this most gracious of cats. Driving up home inside the sanctuary on late evenings, I’ve had the fortune of catching the beauty in jeep headlights. For a few moments that seem like eternity, we exchange an acknowledgment that residents of the same forest do. I’m held in the rapture of those luminous eyes that glow like yellow topaz, and lock with mine in a steady gaze until they deem it a waste of time and disappear into the dark comfort of the foliage.
In an area of nearly 50 square kilometres, about eight of them rule the roost, though with the growing scarcity of food, many from the surrounding mountains move to the villages nearby or Almora town looking for easy prey like dogs and cattle. Some of them are trapped and released in Binsar, that being the closest forest. The leopards that are not fit to be released back into the wild, however, usually go to a small centre a couple of kilometres from Almora.
Man-animal conflict has existed since the beginning of time, and it has only scaled up significantly because of the tipping human population. One of the biggest instances that made local headlines last year was a leopard entering an acquaintance’s house, and how finally the terrorized family managed to lock it in a bathroom. I happened to be present in Almora during the chaos, and the crowds clambering onto rooftops and balconies of surrounding buildings to get a glimpse of the animal left me wondering how much that surge of humanity must have terrorized the leopard in return. If the tables were turned and if man was in the midst of the wild, our definition of who terrorizes whom would change. While watching big cats on the screen or on a safari is a delight, it is a different rush altogether to encounter them unprepared. I have felt my pulse racing when I have faced the spotted cat, and been thankful for not being on foot. It is only in this instance that one can truly understand how insignificant we are, and how none of our physical abilities can match up to the might of the wild.
In a lot of man-animal conflict zones, taking measures to protect one stems from this sense of defenselessness that people experience all the time, as compared to cities where wild encounters rarely happen. Losing pets to leopards is another common occurrence in the hills, and something every other dog or cattle owner has experienced at some point. This conflict again is a very sensitive issue, and needs to be addressed in the context of the zones that experience it for real, and not from the safe distance of a far-removed city.
On some occasions, I visit the leopard centre near Almora, an extension of what used to once be a zoo. Three man-eating leopards lie there, pacing the cages they are confined to for the rest of their life. A lot of questions race through my mind like stubborn mud particles in a recklessly stirred mug, which refuse to settle down. Is a prolonged life lived in a cage better, or is it better to die young and free? I overhear some of these questions asked by an innocent child as he points them to his parents, “why don’t they leave it in the jungle?” It’s something that a lot of adults question too, except that the answers are perhaps not that simple.
We could leave them in the jungles, but what happens to the people who live in these parts, entwined forever with the hills? Would the same people who question the captivity be okay with man-eaters roaming their own neighbourhoods jeopardizing the safety of loved ones, back in their hometowns and cities? If it is the question of leopards belonging to where the forests are, let us not forget that some sections of humanity have also belonged to the forests for eternity. Let us not forget that those city neighborhoods were also lush forests once, and that we have easily shifted the onus of responsibility from our shoulders to those of our kin who still live in harmony with nature.
Let us not forget that condemning a section of society that tries to protect its cattle and crop is easy, because most of us have the privilege of stepping into the nearest supermarket for our food and don’t have to grow it, or fight a battle every day wherein ‘survival of the fittest’ applies to people as much as to the animals. And above all, let us not forget that while man is not above nature, there are some who still co-exist with it with their own understanding of unsaid rules, and exchange now and then with the animal world, a deep gaze and a profound acknowledgement honouring the other.