Amte’s menagerie that once had 10 leopards

One doctor and a hundred animals get together to create a unique modern-day fable in the heart of the Dandakaranya forest

February 18, 2017 03:11 pm | Updated 03:11 pm IST

Leopardess Elsa in the mood for play.

Leopardess Elsa in the mood for play.

Rat-ta-ta-ta-tat! A sound like that of rapid ricochet fire pierces the winter air as the rays of the rising sun drench the wooded Bhamragad taluka in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district. It has not come from a gun. A giant squirrel called ‘shekru’ in Marathi is calling out from its iron cage. In another enclosure, a herd of spotted deer comes prancing towards a group of children who empty a crate of raw vegetable waste before them for the day’s meal.

Bhamragad’s creatures are not used to such ready meals. In the Dandakaranya forest, which covers the town and stretches beyond to neighbouring Chhattisgarh, survival is a daily battle. Whether human or animal, the ability to hunt determines life or death. Unless, of course, you happen to be a resident in the little oasis called ‘Amte’s Animal Ark’.

Amte playing with Jasper the hyena.

Amte playing with Jasper the hyena.

An animal rescue centre-cum-orphanage, Animal Ark is located in Hemalkasa, a village made famous by the work of social worker and doctor Prakash Amte, who runs the Lok Biradari Prakalp (LBP), a multi-project establishment spread over 20 hectares, with a government-aided ashram school, student hostels, hospital and playground. Around a hundred animals live inside the LBP campus. “These animals are so full of love! Look at Jasper the hyena!” says Amte, throwing open a small iron gate. A warm embrace of man and animal, a pat on the back, a tickle of the furry neck — it makes a delightful picture.

Elsa, a two-year-old leopardess, jumps on Amte with her heavy frame. “If you are not paying attention, you can easily get knocked down,” cautions Amte. The Ark once boasted of 10 leopards. With time, some were given away to the Forest Department and some died. “One leopard would sleep in our bedroom and go with my sister Arti to school,” says Amte’s son Aniket. Due to regulations, the Amtes had to build enclosures.

Amte meets every creature with equal fondness: Raja-Rani, the tail-swaying crocodile couple, the pair of nilgai who eat out of his hands, the fuzzy owl who lets him span out her extensive wings, the Russell’s viper who hisses at his touch, the spectacled cobra who pivots its head to follow him, the monitor lizard who sticks out his forked tongue, the sloth bear who displays hind-leg walking skills, the porcupines, the giant squirrels, the tortoise and the solitary honey badger or ratel, best left alone for its ‘aggressive’ temperament.

Caring for the animals, researching their diets, feeding, and behaviour was a trial-and-error process for Amte.

Caring for the animals, researching their diets, feeding, and behaviour was a trial-and-error process for Amte.

The Ark’s origin is closely tied with the story of LBP. Quitting a Master of Surgery course midway in 1973, Amte, with an MMBS degree, decided to follow in the footsteps of his father and noted social worker, the late Baba Amte, who did pioneering work on leprosy among adivasis in this region. “In the initial days, I would roam around the villages and forests. During one such outing I came across a group of adivasis carrying the corpse of a female monkey they had hunted. An infant monkey was suckling the dead mother. They said they would eat it too,” recalls Amte.

The sight moved him considerably, but he realised that hunting was a source of livelihood for the adivasis. He made a deal with them, asking them to give him the baby monkey in exchange for rice and clothes. Babli, the baby monkey, marked the beginning of Animal Ark. With time, many adivasis started bringing abandoned and injured animals to Amte on the same barter system.

With the growth of farming, the commercial exploitation of the forests and the depletion of wildlife, hunting has decreased. The tradition, still alive among the Madia-Gonds, is limited to feasts during festivals called ‘pandum’. Evidence of animal sacrifice — carcasses of monkeys or squirrels propped on a grid of rods — conducted to ward off evil spirits can be found in scattered spots around the jungle.

Hunt over

Chandu and Poru (names changed), both Madias, have returned to Pengunda village without a kill. Armed with a guntil — a two-string bow used to launch small stonesat birds — they had set out to hunt rabbits to celebrate the day of a local deity and mark ‘churna,’ the beginning of paddy threshing. “We have been hunting since childhood for birds, wild pigs, rabbits, but you don’t see many animals these days,” they say.

Hunting is a community activity involving the whole village. “Religious beliefs are associated with it. At a meeting, the community head gives the call for hunting and issues directions. The entire village participates, including children. Different animals carry different meanings. For example, a deerkill is considered the best as it is seen as nature’s blessing,” says Lalsu Soma Nogoti, lawyer and Madia activist. Now, a new generation, with formal education, has abandoned hunting, thus reducing the range of meats the tribes eat to chicken, mutton and fish. Checks by forest officials have also been a discouraging factor.

Amte proudly displaying an owl’s majestic wings.

Amte proudly displaying an owl’s majestic wings.

Caring for the animals, researching their diets, feeding and interactive behaviour was a trial-and-error process for Amte. He refutes the idea that animals are “aggressive” and “wild”, claiming these are misleading tags given by humans. Leopardess Elsa, named after the lioness in the movie Born Free , does not bite when Amte puts his arm in her mouth. The Forest Department, having raised objections about the Ark, has directed the expansion of enclosures as per Central Government regulations, which means an expense of roughly ₹8 crore. The Amtes, who run LBP on donations, are wondering how to meet this, given that the Ark already costs about ₹50 lakh a year to run. In the absence of any assistance from the government, its future hangs in balance. “We don’t mind sending the animals to a zoo, but they won’t be cared for properly. They have grown up here and releasing them in the forest will mean death; they are not trained for the wild,” says Aniket.

The Ark is the cherry on Amte’s four decades of work among the adivasis, for which he was awarded the Magsaysay and Padma Shri. But to him, the futures of LBP and the Ark, much like their histories, are intricately intertwined.

The writer is an independent journalist who likes watching the world go by and trying to figure it out.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.