His teeth were yellow, the canines were blunt; the leopard was in his prime. In late April 2009, while in hot pursuit of a dog, the cat fell into an open well in the agricultural farmlands of Takli Dokeshwar, north of Pune. Help arrived on the third night, when Forest Department staff lowered a ladder. The feline gingerly walked up and straight into a cage.
Vidya Athreya, a researcher, collared the leopard with a GPS transmitter before he was released 60 km. away at the foot of Malshej Ghats. For the next year, the collar would send text messages of the cat's whereabouts. That was how Ajoba became the first subject of a research project on farmland leopards.
Vidya expected him to make a beeline for the fertile farms and prowl amongst the fields of onions, cauliflower and sugarcane. Instead, he began climbing up the hills. That was odd.
Then Ajoba disappeared for three days. When the text messages resumed, he was on the other side of the Ghats, down in the Konkan and across the busy Mumbai-Agra highway. “What is he doing?” Vidya wondered in an email. Her heart was in her mouth when he crossed the Kasara railway station, the last stop for suburban trains from Mumbai. If he suffered even a minor mishap, it could be bad for the cat and the research project.
By the end of the third week, he had reached the Vasai Industrial Area, a vast spread of factories and buildings, on the outskirts of Mumbai. There was every chance that someone would spot the intruder and raise an alarm. Vidya was on tenterhooks. Older animals like Ajoba do not usually wander far from their established territories. So why was he walking purposefully westward?
The following week, Ajoba was in Nagla Block of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, in Mumbai. When two weeks passed and he stayed in that area, Vidya thought he had settled down. Ajoba had walked 120 km. in three-and-a-half weeks. Then he swam across the Ullas river, entered the main park area for a three-day sojourn, and returned. Three weeks later, the GPS transmitter went dead. Perhaps the river crossings had shorted the circuitry.
It's possible that Sanjay Gandhi National Park was Ajoba's original home. In an effort to reduce leopard numbers in the park, he may have been moved to Malshej Ghats. But for the GPS tracker, we'd never have known about Ajoba's remarkable journey. He was close to people on several occasions, yet no one noticed him nor did he harm anybody.
Ajoba was a scientific pioneer, one who showed us that leopards are not jumpy, nervous animals, lashing out at humans at the slightest provocation.
Despite the distance, speeding vehicles on highways, trains thundering along railway lines, and humans everywhere, he displayed a confident determination and unerring sense of direction. I never met Ajoba, but I felt drawn to the yellow dots tracing an arc on the map.
Soon after he was released, Vidya commented that he had been calm, perhaps tired from his ordeal at the bottom of the well. During his travels, I imagined he kept his cool, always aware, alert, able to slip out of any sticky situation, and not prone to impulsive actions. I rooted for his survival, willed him to stay safe and cheered him on as he crossed yet another man-made barrier. And then we lost him.
Two-and-a-half years later, on Thursday night last week, a leopard was found dead, the victim of an accident, on the high-traffic Ghodbunder Road, about 12 km. from Nagla. Perhaps he misjudged the speed of the vehicle or was blinded by its headlights. Had there been an underpass to avoid crossing the treacherous road, he might still be alive. As is normal practice these days, the officials scanned him for a micro-chip. It read 00006CBD68F. Ajoba.