Hail to the leopard, spirit of the forest

In the presence of two regal cats we watched mesmerised and awestruck. Some of that aura rubbed off on us

I have wandered only a handful of forests. Most wildlife enthusiasts might have traveled more in one year than I have over the last five. So I never complain about not having seen most of our mammals including the nation’s heartthrob, the tiger.

But I have always worried about not having met His Highness the Leopard. The jungles I have roamed have plenty of leopards and I have come across ample evidence that pointed towards their activity. In some cases I have missed the beast by a hair’s breadth: scores of pug marks, plenty of scat, but no leopard.

While I think of the tiger as a samurai — bold, always in the limelight and powerful — I equate the leopard to a ninja — silent, cunning, unseen and deadly. Maybe I’m getting carried away here so let me cut to the chase and tell you about my first leopard! It’s kinda obvious by now that I finally did see one, right?

A few weeks ago I was on safari in Mudumalai (it was in fact the first safari of the trip) along with some like-minded friends. Around 4:45 in the evening we were inside the tourist zone of the park looking at chital and gaur. We were talking in hushed whispers when, suddenly, the watcher who accompanied us called our attention to the other side of the vehicle exclaiming softly, “Leopard, leopard!”

At the sound of the word the adrenalin rush I felt must have clocked 240 kph. I frantically scanned the area to which he pointed. I was afraid that the cat would slink away into the undergrowth.

Then, through the dense clump of bushes I spied rosettes. The driver inched the vehicle forward. And there it was — a magnificent leopard bathing in the evening sun!

Half asleep and sunbathing

The scene was magical. The yellowish leopard dozing in orange sun-glow just a few yards away. Unbelievable. Unexpected. Lazing nonchalantly, it lifted its head and aimed a penetrating stare straight at us, or should I say through us!

In the leopard’s piercing gaze

With the vehicle now silent, we sat watching and photographing the leopard for more than ten minutes. It regarded us as if to say, “I know you are ogling but I don’t care” and continued basking. The cat was relaxed and seemed least bothered by our presence. We were relaxed because the leopard was.

While we gazed mesmerized, we were shaken back to reality by a sound from the other side. The distant roar of a tiger. The leopard looked in the direction of the sound. We took in the magical suspense of the moment: A leopard on one side and a tiger calling from the other. After a few minutes, before we realized it, the leopard melted into the undergrowth.

We moved on and completed the safari. We did not see the tiger that roared. And whatever we saw after the leopard hardly registered any impact. My thoughts had fastened to the glowing rosetted coat I had gazed upon for ten minutes, and its owner. I remembered the words of the veteran wildlife photographer TNA Perumal: “The leopard is like the spirit of the forest.” And I had been blessed by it.

The spirit in all its glory

Text and photos: Arun

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