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Caught in the crossfire with nowhere to go

If we are really looking for peace on a troubled planet, we need to restore the natural balance and learn to live in harmony, says Mike Pandey.

health and fitness Updated: Sep 21, 2009 18:41 IST

I was in Corbett country, only a few miles away from Kala Dongee — Jim Corbett’s cottage — a rest house situated a few miles from Ram Nagar. I had chosen the waterfall — according to the guides, it was a favourite watering hole of the local leopard and her cubs. I had been waiting for a long time. The sun was setting and the shadows were growing longer.

The Himalayan ranges are amongst the most beautiful and breathtaking destinations in India, especially in winter. There are cascading sheets of water, natural streams and mist-laden forests where the dew drops shimmer like a millions suns each time they catch the sun’s rays. I was travelling cross-country through thick jungles on treacherous mountain tracks in the Kumaon hills, filming leopards and following Corbett’s old trail.

The winter sun was setting as I climbed into my tree top hideout for the second day. The fading light was deceptive and the banyan tree, barely 50 m away, cast long shadows. Suddenly, the dark silhouette of the tree transformed into a graceful feline shadow. The leopard appeared and dropped soundlessly into the safety of the thick grass below. She was alert to the distant barking of dogs. She stood still for a moment, sniffed the air and then melted away into the darkness, leaving her cubs behind. I hoped she wouldn’t return empty handed like she had the day before. Her cubs were already weak. Sadly, though, that was the last I time I would see her.

The next day we heard the cubs calling out for their mother, their pitiful cries growing louder by the hour. In the stillness of the night, the smell of decomposing flesh hung in the air.

We soon learnt that a leopard had killed a dog and eaten poisoned meat. In their ignorance, the jubilant villagers had killed not only the leopard but also her three cubs.

Due to the plummeting leopard population, the population of monkeys and wild boars has exploded. Monkeys regularly raid the crops and wild boars dig up the farms. Hundreds of farmers in and around Corbett have stopped growing crops and many are moving out.

The most powerful and versatile predator of the Indian jungle is today a fugitive on the run. Chased by farmers and local communities, it has been hunted down to extinction in many areas. Leopards are not natural cattle lifters or man-eaters. Unable to find prey in the jungles, hungry leopards have no choice but to move into villages looking for dogs or goats. The skirmishes with humans are often a result of an accidental confrontation.

The leopard is a stabiliser and the guardian of our jungles. Predators are nature’s way of keeping monkey and wild boar populations from exploding beyond control. If we are really looking for peace on a troubled planet, we need to restore the natural balance and learn to live in harmony. Each of nature’s creations is a vital part of the food chain that holds the planet together. Our own survival depends on this delicate balance.