KALAGHAT Travelling to the little known Kalaghat Tiger Reserve, ARUN GANAPATHY promptly runs into a leopard

Not far from Delhi, hidden away in the foothills of Pauri Garhwal is the forest reserve of Kalaghat. It is only a seven to eight hour ride from the Capital – first by train to Kotdwar at the foothills of the Himalayas and then on the Kanvashram, about 14 kms. away. And from the nearby small village of Kalalghati, a bridle path runs deep into the bosom of the jungle.

The sun has already been up a few hours as I stumble out of my room, woken up by the piercing calls of hornbill calling to his mate. On another tree not far from them a woodpecker is also busy at his breakfast; he punches holes in the bark, tok tok tok!

My agenda for the day was to start after an early lunch and take Lakshman, a boy guide from the village and walk along a trail which runs high above the river Malan deep into the forest. As we start out, a troop of langurs which has been frolicking on top of the roof of the rest house tumbles out. The trail is actually the top of a bund and is flanked by tall trees, some of which creek and sway in the wind now blowing from the mountains above.

Suddenly my guide points to a large splotch in the sand. “Elephant foot prints,” he says, “about a week old”. The trail is so thin and the sides of the valley so steep I wonder how any animal, least of all an elephant could have walked through this path. I ask my guide and he immediately points to a bamboo clump flanking the path. It has been broken on top, by the feeding elephants. I learn from this that in the jungle the signs are all there, but one has to know where to look and how to read them. Sure enough a hundred yards further ahead we came upon elephant dung.

As we walk on there are more signs of life; a pair of jungle fowl cries murderously before disappearing in the undergrowth and higher up a peacock sends out a piercing mew to his mate across the river. Then a langur calls from somewhere far off and stops. He is followed by a chital who calls for a minute and falls silent. Immediately the alarm call sounds, I sense a change in the mood of the jungle. There is a deathly yet pregnant silence (it is as though all the jungle is waiting breathlessly for the next call of the langur). All the jungle seems to know that the langur's keen eyes have spotted a leopard or tiger in the undergrowth and that he is now warning them.

The leopard!

My guide tells me that the chital is calling up the river and from the way the calls have progressed, the predator is moving, and moving quickly. He warns me it would better to return, avoiding the forest trail and taking a shortcut to my rest house. We hurry our steps and stumble into the compound of the rest house just as darkness starts taking over. As we enter, another langur starts calling.

Almost simultaneously a series of deep grunts resounds through the jungle. It is a leopard and he is trying to scare the langurs off the trees, a favourite tactic of his I am told, to get a meal. For those of you who haven't heard a leopard in the wild, it is at once perhaps the most terrifying and exciting noise you can hear. Your heart is in your mouth and the hair on your arms and legs stand on end. One part of you desperately wants to see him, but at the same time you are scared to bits. Along with Babulal, the caretaker of the guest house, I now race to the perimeter of the forest and as we do so the leopard grunts once more and stops.

And this is when it gets terrifying. As long as he was grunting I could at least make out his whereabouts, but now in the silence I was clueless. He could have been ten feet away or 100 feet away I wouldn't have known. We switched on our torches and turn it into the forest in front of us. The beam cuts through the surrounding darkness like a knife through butter but we see nothing. Then suddenly between the trunks of two shagun trees I see a pair of metallic yellow-green gleaming in the darkness. It is the leopard and he is looking straight in our direction. I am so excited that I whisper a few words to Babulal but this is enough to shoo the leopard away. When we spot him a moment later, his yellow green eyes flash further uphill, and then a minute later we hear his grunts about half a kilometre away.

When I wake up the next morning the langurs are busy playing on the mango trees and pair of hornbills is calling to each other. Another day in the Kalaghat Tiger reserve has just begun.