Nestled in the sylvan, verdant slopes of Satpura hills there is a compact wildlife reserve – the Pench Tiger Reserve. The story which I am going to tell you today belongs to a time when this tiger reserve was a national park, only a few months old, and I, fresh out of the Wildlife Institute of India, had joined there as its Director.
The incident that I am going to narrate to you happened in 1986 – winter was knocking and the freshness that the jungle had worn after the monsoon was beginning to fade, the forest roads were strewn with dry teak leaves, and some migrant birds had already begun filling the crisp air with their songs. Bhaiyya Lal and I were on the Bison camp – Tikari forest road; as usual, he was driving the jeep, skillfully maneuvering the vehicle on a serpentine forest road that meanders through small hillocks and shallow valleys. I had taken on to myself the task of scanning the trees for birds, the slopes for animals and the road for their footprints. While I was all eyes for the details spread before me, at one bend in the road, on a young and tall teak tree, I discerned scratch marks that ran up from about five inches above the ground and to the crown, some twenty-five feet above – it was evident that a leopard had shinned up the tree in a great hurry. I got down from the jeep to inspect the scratch marks. The signs were fresh for those were still sappy, and the exposed fibres were quite moist and supple.
I went on to search the gravelly road and saw some faint pugmarks of the leopard, following it were the spoor of a male tiger. The imagery, of what might have transpired here some hours ago, began to form in my head – a leopard, young, inexperienced and impetuous had tread foolishly into the resident tiger’s royal domain and was caught red handed by the King himself, who gave chase, and the leopard had scurried up the teak tree to save his skin – and succeeded. I told Bhaiyya Lal that this foolish leopard had only a few days to live unless he mended his ways.
Not very long thereafter, a messenger came from a nearby forest office, as in those days there was no phone in my office, to tell me that the ranger Karmajhiri had called from Khawasa to report that a male leopard had been killed by a tiger in Tikari beat. The inevitable had already happened and the only thing left for me to do was to inspect the scene of the scuffle and reconstruct the train of events that might have led to the premature dispatch of the stupid leopard to Arcadia.
When I reached Karmajhiri forest rest house around 3 pm, the range officers and two of his guards were waiting for me. The two guards, young and energetic fresh recruits, looked quite excited and, in a hurry, to recount the details of the real-life drama that had unfolded before their eyes and which, apparently, had wrecked their nerves. My task became easier as there were eye-witnesses to this rare incident.
What they had to tell me was this: the two of them, were patrolling the jungle together as their beats were adjacent. After walking for about two miles on the forest road they decided to leave it and take up an animal track that ran through a thick lantana patch as it was to save them half an hour to reach Kumbhababa patrolling camp. As soon as they started on this animal track, their senses numbed and legs stuck to the ground for they found themselves in the company of a huge tiger just a few yards from them. The tiger was looking away in the opposite direction towards dense lantana bushes, totally engrossed in what he was doing. His belly flush with the ground, ears cocked, tails twitching and eyes firmly fixed on a tangle of lantana bushes, he appeared an embodiment of a shooter hell-bent on making a hole into the bull’s eye. Both guards gathered courage and tip-toed backwards looking for a tree that could save their lives. They were lucky – a moyan tree (Lannea coromandelica) was only a few feet away – in great haste, they scurried up and perched themselves on two sturdy branches. Feeling safe they were ready now to witness what the tiger was after.
In these few seconds the tiger had inched near an opening in the lantana bush, and suddenly he leaped into the bushes like lightening and soon a great commotion began inside the bush, following it a series of heart-stopping roars, gurgles, and hissing and snarling ensued. Till then, the shaken guards had no clue what was inside the lantana bush and why the tiger was so furious. And then they saw him – he was a young leopard, and he was in deep trouble for there was no escape- route open to him as the only retreat available to him was the one that the tiger had blocked. Knowing his life-threatening predicament, the leopard was determined to fight back – so this was how the guards sitting in the tree came to hear that medley of blood-curdling sounds and watch a very rare and one-sided brawl between two graceful beasts of the jungle.
The fight, if we may call it so, had ended a few seconds later but the tiger continued to vent his anger by attacking the body, turning and pushing it around, and while engaged in this task he continued to make all sorts of sounds he was capable of making. A few minutes later he severed the tail of the leopard and threw it aside and began eating at the rump. But soon he lost interest in the leopard, sat there for almost ten minutes and then got up and moved towards the Chhedia ghat (a place on the bank of the Pench river). The guards, though safely perched on the Moyan tree were totally mesmerized and numbed by that dream-like episode they had witnessed a few moments ago. They took almost thirty minutes to gather enough courage to come down, and after coming down, without looking back, they sprinted the two miles to Karmajhiri to report the incident to their range officer.
After getting the eyewitness account, I visited the spot where the leopard’s body laid soulless on the ground inside that lantana thicket – its torn tail by its side, and a small portion of the rump chewed up. In this forest patch lantana was out of control, though for deer lantana poses some barrier to their free movement. for shorter animals it provides a labyrinth of tunnels underneath – tiger, leopard, bear, hyena, jackal, and wild pig use this excellent cover for resting, littering and ambush. The leopard that was killed by the tiger was surely unlucky for he chose the wrong bush to rest – the bush I saw then was almost impenetrable except from one side, and the Tikari tiger had blocked the only escape route. I saw the signs of the rampage the tiger had brought about inside the bush – some of the inner clumps were uprooted and torn to shreds and the ground soil looked like as if worked with a shovel – it was the scene of a battlefield where a fierce but one-sided battle had been fought and won a few hours ago.
I was sad for the young leopard’s untimely departure, but this is how life in the jungle is – its denizens always live on the edge of a precipice – one slip and they go tumbling down to Arcadia.
Photos and sketch: Suhas Kumar
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