In India’s countryside we find ourselves unwittingly living in the presence of big cats. A tree-planting fanatic and his wife offer ample proof.

After a leopard moved in and took one of their dogs, 50 km south of Chennai, near Chengalpattu, Rom Whitaker and Janaki Lenin set up camera traps at their farm to capture photographs of the resident wildlife. Rom is an admitted tree-planting fanatic; so he had populated 11 acres of converted rice fields with several dozen species of indigenous trees. Fifteen years later, the trees are soaring into the sky and what was once a farmland has now a much higher and denser canopy than the adjacent Vallam Reserve Forest. With the trees come a plethora of birds.

Less obvious were the animals that colonised this new forest. Rom and Janaki are in touch with wildlife biologists who suggested contacting Andre Pittet at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore for advice on a wonderful invention called the camera-trap. When an animal walks past, it triggers a motion sensor which activates the camera and thus captures a picture of the animal, be it day or night.

Few wildlife studies have been done in these areas of India’s last remaining Tropical Dry Evergreen Forests (TDEF), yet they teem with plants and creatures. Over 450 species of trees and plants were inventoried in this area. There are 60 species of amphibians and reptiles (including coral snakes and pythons), over 140 species of birds (including great horned owls and booted eagles), 35 species of mammals (including ratels, black buck, spotted deer), and insects that are barely known. The Forest Department and conservationists are yet to fully grasp the value of these forests.

Within months, the camera trap got a picture of a fine healthy male leopard. Leopard prey such as bonnet macaques, porcupines, palm civets, spotted civets, black-naped hares, jungle cats, ruddy and common mongooses trigger the camera traps almost every night.

The leopard was last glimpsed on July 14, 2012. What is clear is that in India’s countryside we are often unwittingly living in the presence of big cats. By leaving them alone and taking a few sensible precautions, they seem to get along fine with us. Never a dull day (or night) on the farm!

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