Rendezvous in the wild

Rendezvous in the wild

The leopard cast a baleful glance, giving us a glimpse of its intense smouldering eyes.

The intrusion of a leopard into a school in Bengaluru a couple of months ago and the high-voltage drama that followed, revived memories of my own brushes with wildlife in the tea estates of Munnar over the years.

One evening, pensively strolling through a tea field, I had an uncanny feeling that I was being closely watched.   Instinctively, I looked up to find myself dangerously close to a massive gaur bull chewing the cud and eyeing me suspiciously. I froze in my tracks. Recalling how a friend had been fatally attacked by a gaur in the Nilgiris, I slowly began to backtrack, never daring to take my eyes off the bovine or turn my back on it. It watched me retreat, its magnificently horned head tossed back imperiously as if to say, “No one enters my territory uninvited!” On reaching a safe distance, I turned and scurried away.

On another occasion, I surprised a far more predictable herbivore, a barking deer, on a narrow path snaking through a tea field. In a frantic bid to escape, it leapt up a steep ridge, cannoned into the hard stem of a tea bush and dropped down, dazed by the impact. In no time it desperately roused itself and made another attempt to clear the ridge – only to collapse in a heap once again. Indomitable, it tried yet again, this time leaping up halfway and somehow clambering the rest of the way to the top, barking raucously as it fled.

In the 1960s, I once accompanied a friend on a jungle fowl shoot. He sent in Ben, his retriever, to flush out the birds as we waited with our shotguns on the edge of the jungle bordering a tea field.   Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the dog came tearing back towards us, followed by the sound of something large crashing through the jungle hot on its heels. It was only when the pursuer burst out of the dense shrubbery that we realised it was an infuriated wild tusker hardly 30 feet away. With the elephant closing in, we fled for our lives – Ben outpacing us easily! He had unforgivably trespassed into the privacy of the pachyderm’s sanctum.

One night, an elephant calf strayed from its herd and blundered into an uncovered septic tank in a housing colony.   Unable to extricate it despite trying for hours, the wild jumbos reluctantly abandoned it as dawn approached and locals turned up at the scene. It took almost 3 hours of sustained effort and patience to rope the panicky youngster out.   Snorting in disgust and thoroughly bespattered from its unconventional ‘baptism’, it resolutely ambled off in search of its companions, leaving behind an olfactory trail that was far from fragrant!

Another night while returning to Munnar, our car’s headlights picked out a leopard sneaking across the road.   Hardly 15 feet away, it cast a baleful glance at the car, giving us a fleeting glimpse of its intensely smouldering eyes. A chill ran down my spine. Rightly has it been said that a leopard’s eyes reflect unalloyed malevolence. I’m sure the bravehearts of Bengaluru, who were mauled by the intruding feline, will vouch for this.

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