Except for the twin headlights of the vehicle lighting up the narrow path ahead, the area was steeped in inky blackness. Up above, the sky was a moonless canopy of bluish-black, bejewelled with a million glittering stars. It was a windless but chilly night and nothing seemed to be moving in Panna Tiger Reserve’s (PTR) buffer zone. This national park in Madhya Pradesh is one of few that allow a night safari. Spread over 1,022 sq. km, PTR’s buffer zone has large swathes of thick forests, which I was exploring one late evening in March 2020.
We bumped along the rutted, rocky path, the only humans for kilometres around. My guide, Uttam Ahirwar, shone his powerful torch in quick bursts on either side, but visibility was restricted. A safari in the dark was a novel experience for me. My senses were heightened, even the crunch of the tyres on the soil felt exaggerated, and my imagination ran riot, seeing things where none existed. Then, without warning, 100 metres ahead of us, a leopard streaked across the path, followed in quick succession by two little cubs. “Aage, aage” Uttam whispered to the driver. We moved forward and found the leopard in a clearing, a few metres left of the trail it had crossed.
She stood alert, keeping a wary eye on us, as well as on her cubs. Hidden in the undergrowth, the cubs appeared to move around, but did not come out into the open. She paced around a bit, a mix of elegance and fluidity; never too far from the cubs, always placing herself between us and them. Even in the darkness, with just the light from a torch, her beauty was evident. Her eyes glowed like luminescent gems, her muscled limbs shouted latent power, and her coat was a muted gold with stark black spots. Having recently seen a tiger in PTR, at about four feet the leopard felt small. The cubs were the size of domestic cats, only stockier. I later learnt a leopard’s body length varies from 100-190 cm, with additional tail length of 70-95 cm; males reach a weight of 70 kg while females topoff at 60 kg. Considered to be the smallest of the big cats, the leopard (Panthera pardus) has a lean agile body, enabling it to climb trees, its preferred place of rest particularly in areas where tigers (and lions) are found. Leopards use the ground only to move from place to place, and even drag their kill up trees to eat undisturbed. Their dark spots provide the perfect camouflage and seem designed for stealthy night prowling.
After pacing back and forth for several minutes, the leopard chose a spot in the clearing, sat down and stared at us. The cubs became a bit more courageous and started weaving in and out of the bushes but didn’t come into the clearing. When they became too frisky, the mother gave them a look, which seemed to temper their enthusiasm. They quieted down and hid in the bushes but couldn’t stay still for too long. And so it went on. After nearly 15 minutes of watching her, the leopard finally turned around and walked away from us into the jungle, the cubs trotting behind her. Within seconds, the darkness had swallowed the trio.
After waiting for a few minutes in the hope that they would come back, we continued deeper into the buffer zone. “I told you we’ll be lucky,” Uttam said, all smiles, referring to a conversation we’d had earlier in the evening. As we’d turned into the buffer area at Harsa gate on NH39, about 4km from PTR’s Madla Gate entrance, Uttam had pointed to a wild boar grazing in the bushes. He’d said: “We guides believe it is good luck to see a boar first thing during a safari. It means we will see a tiger or a leopard.” It had seemed a pipedream then, now I felt sheepish about being dismissive.
We pushed further into the buffer zone’s more remote areas. I learnt that leopards were predominantly nocturnal, a fact that surprised me. On two separate occasions, I had encountered a leopard in PTR’s core area during morning safaris; both were fleeting glimpses, lasting less than a minute, but the animals were on the ground rather than resting on a tree. Found in almost every forest type in the country except deserts and mangroves, they’re known to be highly adaptable to local conditions and are present in 17 states of India, in territories that are inhabited by tigers. They feed on smaller herbivores, especially spotted deer, hog deer, wild boar, but are also known to eat monkeys, rodents, birds and any creature they can overpower. They generally ambush their prey, sneaking low and pouncing on the unsuspecting animal. Because of this cunning aspect, there are usually a lot more warning calls, especially from monkeys looking from their vantage in the canopy, when a leopard is around compared to other predators. A loud cacophony of langurs had filled the air on both the occasions I had encountered them.
Though there are no accurate figures of their population, a joint research paper by scientists of the Centre for Wildlife Studies and Wildlife Institute of India published in February 2020 estimated that there might be between 12,000 and 14,000 leopards in India. Worryingly, the paper speculated that India might have lost between 75 and 90 per cent of its leopard population in the last 120-200 years. Classified as “Near Threatened” on IUCN’s Red List, the biggest threats to the animal are not just habitat loss, but also human conflict, poaching for trade of body parts, and vehicle accidents in and around “Protected Areas”.
“We could see leopards more frequently earlier, but not as much now,” Uttam said sadly. It made the sighting of the female and cubs all the more precious. We stopped by the side of one of the many streams that criss-cross the buffer zone, in the hope of catching a thirsty animal or bird. In the silence of the night, the water gurgled gently. The crickets’ stridulations created a veritable symphony, with a variety of frog croaks adding to the background score. The tall arjuna trees on the banks of the stream were filled by swarms of fireflies, creating a spectacular light show. Their rhythmic twinkling seamlessly segued into the star-studded sky, making the whole scene incredibly dreamy. Enough to shake Uttam out of his despondency and narrate fantastic tales from the forest, and mythical stories of gods emerging from giant boulders to take up residence atop a hill.
It was tempting to stay and revel in the serenity of the surroundings. But the wind picked up and with it moisture-laden clouds shuttered the starlit sky. A fine misty rain came down on us in the open-top vehicle. We’d already spent three hours on the safari and it was time to leave anyway. Along the way, a herd of spotted deer demonstrated what “caught in the headlights” meant, a civet rushed across our path, and we spotted a shy chinkara behind a tree.
Before leaving the buffer zone, we made one last stop where we’d seen the leopard and her cubs earlier. We waited in silence in the dark for a few minutes, in the hope that the trio would make an appearance. But it was not to be. The mother’s lambent eyes though were a haunting presence for a long time after.