Panna, once the Bundela capital under Maharaja Chhatrasal, its sanctuary lost its wild cats to poachers. But, we spot one of the leopards there

The alarm rang at 4 in the morning, but I was in no mood to wake up and drive a couple of hours to a wildlife national park where most of the wildlife (read tigers) had been poached. However, the safari had been booked, and I left the comfortable environments of my hotel in Khajuraho, and drove through the darkness to Panna. There was a nip in the air, and the moon seemed reluctant to leave her throne and give her place to the sun.

Depleting reserves

Dawn broke just as we were nearing Panna, lighting up the landscape. Our travel companions were in awe of the diamond city as they called it. Speaking about the diamond mines in the Vindhyas, they gave me the historic background of the town, which was once the Bundela capital under Maharaja Chhatrasal.

However there was silence when we spoke about the Panna wildlife sanctuary. A few years ago, tigers here had become prey to poachers, who had depleted the entire reserve of tigers.

My naturalist-guide from the reserve was quick to add: “A few tigers and tigresses have been relocated from other national parks.” He, however, ended with the statutory disclaimer that we need to be lucky to spot them. I yawned and told him that my luck with tiger and leopard sightings had been rather dismal. He immediately smiled and said: “Then hopefully we would change that.”

Morning dawned and the forests of Panna looked absolutely stunning, wearing a fresh coat of colours and shining in the morning sun. The waters of the River Ken sparkled as we went to see if we could spot any crocodiles. I had not seen a prettier forest. It dawned on me that we were probably the only tourists up so early in the jungles as we drove along the safari route. The birds had just woken up, and I had to convince the driver and the guide that I was interested in sighting them as much as in mammals.

Nilgai beckons

Just as the safari became rather predictable, we heard the call of a nilgai. I was distracted by the sighting of the red headed vulture, a lifer for me but the guide mentioned that it was an alarm call, signalling probably the presence of a tiger. And then the driver took us one of those rides of our lives; driving at top speed even as we asked him to slow down.

The naturalist was sure there was a tiger around, as we heard the alarm call again. We waited for a while near the river bank and was joined by a couple of jeeps ferrying tourists like us. After what seemed like an eternity, we drove back towards the river. The guide was disappointed that he could not show us a tiger while I rued at the missed opportunity of photographing the red headed vulture.

However, another call soon changed our moods. It was loud and seemed close. We trembled in a mix of nervousness, fear and excitement as the guide whispered it was the mating call of a leopard. I had neither heard nor seen a leopard in the wild and I was all ears. The call came again, echoing through the dense forests and it seemed extremely close to us. But we could not spot the leopard. There is nothing more exciting than hearing the call of a wild mammal, knowing its somewhere near you, probably even watching you, but you cannot see it.

We were on the river bank and we wondered if it was hidden somewhere amidst the grass or up in the trees above us. As it was a mating call, we looked for two leopards. The call repeated and then stopped. As we scanned with our binoculars, we finally spotted a coat of spots on the rocks on the other side of the river.

The leopard was looking in our direction but we had no idea if we had been spotted. It was too far away for a photograph, but too close for comfort as well.

We watched it for a while as the guide smiled at me and said: “Didn't I say we will change your luck?” And then he pointed to another tree. I almost expected to see another leopard, but there was my red headed vulture scanning the landscape for prey. My day was made.

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