In June 2006, Karadi, our gorgeous 45-kg German Shepherd went missing. We assumed he had been stolen and began an extensive search of the neighbouring villages.
A couple of days later, at sunset, Mother saw an animal silhouetted against the golden sky atop a hill. “The nose isn't so long and the ears aren't so sharp,” she said later. She called out “Karadi… Karadi” and it displayed none of the familiar excitement on seeing her. “What could it be?” she asked, almost afraid of what she might hear. Leopard!
We focussed our search efforts in the garden. Irula tribal trackers found the spot where the dog had been killed and following the little bits of fur caught in thorns, located the carcass in a dense thorny thicket. Having a predator who called our garden “home” was enough to send adrenalin rushing to all our senses. Could we live with such a dangerous animal around? Should we lodge a complaint?
Over time, my murderous sadness gave way to reason; the leopard was only doing what came naturally. Call me crazy, but eventually I even began to feel possessive of the cat, he had eaten Karadi, and was therefore imbued with his spirit.
I imagine from being like sluggish domestic water buffalos, we were sparked by the wild ourselves. After dark, every time we stepped out of the house, we expected to see a leopard. The cat, however, had been watching and timing our routine with the dogs. Later, we visualised him gazing down at our house, yawning and wondering: “Wonder what time breakfast is served?”
Sure enough, one early morning in March 2007, Koko, our other Shepherd, was attacked right in front of us when we let the dogs out after the long night. Rom, no longer sleepy-eyed, turned to whisper to me: “It's the bloody leopard”, and like an apparition, the cat dropped the dog and vanished. It wasn't until several minutes later that we noticed the steady drip of deep red blood from Koko's throat; her thick fur masked just how badly she was hurt.
Priya, the vet, rushed out to our farm and spent three hours stitching up the deep puncture wounds in Koko's throat, plus gashes, where razor sharp claws had raked her chest and belly. While her wounds healed in time, for months afterward she coughed raspily from having her windpipe choked.
To learn more about our leopard, we set up a camera-trap. Finally, in mid-January last year, his image was trapped. He was so obese that I wondered if he had escaped from a zoo. Leopard researcher Vidya Athreya confirmed that cats living off stray dogs and goats were indeed fat, as they didn't have to work too hard for their prey. She also cautioned that male leopards do not stick around if there are no females. But till date, we haven't seen her pugmarks or picture.
The following March, the leopard triggered the camera again — we knew it was the same guy from matching the spots. Then, we lost track of him; perhaps he became camera-shy.
However, we know he's around: a cattle-herd witnessed the leopard bringing down one of his calves last month, not far from our northern fence.
People assume (as we initially did) that it was just a matter of time before an accident occurred — after all, goat and cow herders walk these scrub forests near Chengalpattu every day. And yet, while a few goats and calves have been lost, not a single human has been attacked even though the leopard lives in such close proximity to villages. The ready availability of stray dogs and livestock allows a lot of such wild predators to live outside protected parks and sanctuaries in India, and if people can be as tolerant as these villagers, perhaps, there is indeed a future for these wild species.
(A fortnightly column about life on the edge of the jungle with Rom Whitaker. The author can be reached at email@example.com)