Panther on prowl

I do not clearly remember what occurred first, three decades have passed since the day — whether the encounter with the German friend at the Needle Industries open air carol service on December 23 or the sighting of the cat on the corrugated cold tin roof.

The Herr had casually mentioned that a panther had entered a plantation bungalow garden in our neighbouring estate, but the extent of its success in purloining or pouncing was yet to be ascertained. He warned us to be careful about our pets, if we had any.

Unlike today, those were not days when gaur grazed in tea gardens with a nonchalance like it is their very own stamping ground, or an errant elephant or two left their green thickages to lumber along a tarred road and even trample down a gate to get to the garden produce, as it happened to a friend of mine in the recent past.

Rumours were soon rife that in the wee hours of the morning, a leopard with cubs had been spotted near Glendale; that a watchman had seen a panther on a nocturnal mission, along one of the roads that criss-crossed the plantation that he was employed in; and that the sawing of a panther was heard at dusk, quite often.

Not until a labourer had reported seeing a tiger head for a cow which had made good an escape, and noticed the clearly-imprinted pug marks of the predator on the ground and picked up a chipped claw that had grooved the hard-baked earth, were we convinced that the big cats were truly on the prowl. And the memory, in all its starkness of the feline on our garage roof one night distinctly silhouetted against the moon-blanched hillscape, returned with clarity to tell me that it was not our neighbour’s cat!

An adjoining shola skirting the plantation, which we had assumed was home to just wild boar, barking deer, and jungle fowl — a palatable fare to the labourers who trapped them — apparently now shielded bigger game. That Amber, our stately golden retriever, or “Chokky’ (Chokkalingam) would soon fall prey, protected as we thought they were, was something we had never imagined.

Amber disappeared one day, and a couple of months later, Chokky’s rust, black and white fur was spotted early one morning in the circular plot of the King’s Crown plant. The panther had broken open the wooden door of Chokky’s shed.

The evidence of the recent struggle sent John bounding through the tea-bushes towards the shola before we could restrain him. The panther had, however, outwitted him, and sad to say, closed the Chokky chapter once and for all.

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