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The quest for the cat

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Do campers get to meet the elusive leopard during the mammal survey at Karadi Malai Camp?

AT THE CAMPChildren make a cast of a pug mark
AT THE CAMPChildren make a cast of a pug mark

Can we find the leopard’s pugmark? We know it is less likely. After all, he is the most elusive of all animals in the area. And yet, as we set out on a pug mark trail that morning, most campers harbour notions of seeing it. It is day two of the mammal survey at herpetologist Romulus Whitaker and Janaki Lenin’s Karadi Malai Camp in Chengalpattu district. Held in collaboration with the Gerry Martin Project, the three-day camp teaches 14 children the nuts and bolts of an animal survey in the wild.

They explore the surrounding tropical dry evergreen forest by foot, build hides using bamboo and coconut palm to observe animals at night, hike up the hill, set-up camera traps…all in an effort to understand the mammals that inhabit the forest patch nurtured by Rom and Janaki. Sumanth Madhav from the Gerry Martin Project leads us on our search for signs of mammals. “Pug mark casting helps you keep track of the animal; you will get to know the individual,” explains Sumanth, adding that “the science of casting is more important than the art.”

The sun beats down on us; the burnt dry leaves crackle under our feet as we search the ground. The Eastern Ghats are special in their own way. There have been tremendous amounts of research on the Western Ghats, a biodiversity hotspot. But, “the Eastern Ghats have been ignored,” feels Sumanth. He says that these hills hold a lot of surprises. The behaviour of animals in the two mountain ranges is different. “I’ve seen monkeys come out even in the afternoon in the Western Ghats since the sun doesn’t reach beyond the thick canopy. But in the Eastern Ghats, they come out only after 4 p.m.,” he says. The project aims to study and document animal behaviour in these hills.

Soon, we come across our first pug mark of the day. We don’t know which animal it belongs to. Could it be a mongoose’s? A jungle cat’s? “Let’s cast it,” says Sumanth. He mixes plaster of Paris with water to a “dosa maavu consistency” and pours it into the mark, covering it entirely. Once dry, it will help identify the animal. We find another one along the trail and cast it too, before heading back to the camp.

As the morning wears on, the campers set out to create pug marks on the surface of the ground and cast it for practice. The sun and the tropical dry evergreen forest, ensure that they sweat it out. But they don’t mind. “I like being close to Nature,” says 16-year-old Pratik. “I want to do something in wildlife conservation.” From 13-year-old Asha who wants to be a veterinarian, to Anjali who is working to be a herpetologist, and Tina Rose Abraham who dreams of becoming a forest ranger, most children at the camp are here for the same reason — a fascination for Nature.

Animals form their conversations over lunch; for the three days, this is all that they will talk about. Suddenly, there’s a buzz about leopards — Jagadeesh, who manages the camp, sets out to screen Rom’s documentary Leopards: 21st Century Cats .

Karadi Malai Camp is named after Karadi, Rom and Janaki’s magnificent German Shepherd that was mauled by a leopard at the camp one day. The documentary, that’s yet to be released in India, starts off with Karadi’s death that triggers Rom’s quest for leopards that live close to human habitations.

Rom and Janaki then share their experiences about creating the camp; on how it turned into one of the most successful backyard conservation stories. They live in harmony with the many creatures that the forest nurtures. This includes the leopard that no one but Karadi encountered.

Pug mark casting helps you keep track of the animal; you will get to know the individual

Sumanth Madhav

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