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Phantom of the Mountains: The Leopards of Himalayas

We arrived in the quaint little town of Hamirpur in the October of 2016. The cold was just beginning to set in, and the days were still brightly sunny and sweltering hot. Hamirpur is situated in the southern part of Himachal Pradesh. We were here to volunteer with Shweta Shivakumar in a Himachal Pradesh Forest Department and WCS India project headed by Dr Vidya Athreya, the objective being to study the interactions between leopards (Panthera pardus) and humans.

Hamirpur, set in the foothills of Himalayas (Shiwaliks) not only has ragged hills but sprawling plains dotted with small villages and agricultural fields. Our job was to collect leopard faecal samples from the area for diet analysis. The search for leopard scat had begun!

The ever curious and extremely friendly villagers in the landscape made our work very entertaining. The best part was explaining to people what we were up to. It is not every day that they see city people carefully picking up poop from roadsides and packing it away! The lines, “Namaste Ji! Ham tendue par kaam karte hai, ham unka mal uthate hai aur dekhte hai ki woh kya kha raha hai. Apne tendua dekha kabhi?” (Hello! We work on leopards, we collect their scat and try to understand what they have eaten. Have you seen one?), got etched in our mind so well that if someone wakes us up in the middle of the night, this is what we are going to say.

Pic credit :Ritobroto Chanda

Our job was to walk trails in group of twos with the respective forest guard. For them too, it was something to have a good laugh about. Two guards were with us throughout the first two weeks of our trails. These two were inseparable, the guards of Bhiar and Badehar beats, Yog Raj and Naresh and were great fun to walk with. Though they were quite reserved in the beginning, we all became really good friends towards the end.

Since we were working in human habitation areas, we always ended up with a lot of hilarious experiences. One day, we were talking to a villager whose goat was taken away by a leopard. She explained, “Ek din main ghas kaat rahi thi aur jab sar uthake dekha, to meri bakri mai-mai karti hui udke gayi” (One day I was cutting grass along the mountain slope, and when I lifted my head, I saw my goat flying over me, bleating). People have seen many things flying, but this was probably the only case of a flying goat. A leopard had caught the goat and flung it over the ridge to carry it away to a safe place to feed on.

On another day, two of the volunteers Arpitha and Dhee were faced with a question they never expected. As they were busy collecting scat, a car whizzed past. After a moment, it reversed and came back. The driver had a quizzical look on his face. He watched them for a while, looked at them from head to toe and then asked, “Aap…Matlab…Kya?” (You…I mean…What?). It was as if he was questioning their entire existence in his village. He was too shocked to understand what two city girls were up to, picking up poop which looked no different from dog poop. It took them a while explaining what they did with the scats they were collecting.

Most of the locals speak in a dialect of Pahari and the forest guards amused themselves in explaining many what we were up to. The scat was given many names like mal, goo, tatti, latrine, toilet and one person even went to the extent of calling it “choti moti potty”!

It was hard to distinguish between a leopard’s and a dog’s scat. What we absolutely thought was leopard’s, turned out to have a lot of grains inside. Yog Raj Ji had the most outrageous theory for it. He explained, “See, the dog eats grains and then the leopard eats the dog. So the leopard scat has grains in it!” We couldn’t fathom if he was joking or being absolutely serious.

pic credit: vidya athreya

Yog Raj Ji and Naresh Ji probably hated us at the start for making them walk in the heat the whole day, but later they too started enjoying their job. Yog Raj, for instance, became an expert in spotting leopard scats and ended up finding most of them. We even had a competition to see who gets the most scats at the end of the day. Yog Raj Ji called it, “Kiske kismet mein kitna tatti hai” (how much poop in one’s fortune) and we would all double up with laughter.

Arjun, one of the volunteers, while walking a trail, came across a woman cutting grass and he couldn’t make the head or tail of what she was telling him in pahari. Yog Raj Ji came along and told the woman, “Yeh Bangalore se hain, isko ghas uthana nahi aata” (He’s from Bangalore you see, and he doesn’t know how to pick up grass). Later it turned out that the woman was asking for help to pick up the bundle of grass she had cut.

We met a variety of people during the time spent there. A really old grandma who had a tussle with a leopard which had got hold of her goat. She managed to pull it out of the animal’s grasp, when she realized what she had done, she collapsed. A man who claimed with absolute confidence that there was no leopard around. We later found fresh leopard scat right outside his front gate. We met many curious schoolkids and men who were absolutely scared of leopards but too proud to admit it. While some of them had a really good laugh about what we did, some stood back to watch us pack up scats with curiosity. We met people who were absolutely worried about our safety and warned us a million times to be careful while going into the nullahs; places where people think leopards liked to hide during the day. There was also a bunch of women who stopped by to give marriage advice to the volunteers! It were these moments and the people that made our trails amusing and gave it life.

We had some interesting encounters with scats of other organisms as well. Once we picked up a scat thinking it was leopard’s, only to get a stench we were way too familiar with. And on close observation we found fenugreek seeds sticking out of it. No points guessing which bipedal excreted that one. We never looked at fenugreek seeds the same way again.

Pic credit: Dhee

To make sure there was no contamination, we tried our best to not touch the scat with hands. The forest guards guffawed when we tried to make them understand that the poop was going to get dirty.

Even with all this fun and games, we noticed one striking factor during our time volunteering. Despite the vast populations of humans in the area, leopards were still at large. Inevitably, they came in constant interactions with the humans. But, even though this area was a witness to both leopards and humans falling victims to one another, there prevailed a sense of acceptance towards this elusive animal. The people we interacted with were ever understanding of our work, and never judgmental about it. The fact that we picked up scats was not something they sniggered about, contrary to our expectations. Leopards are not a surprise to them. People here have been sharing space with them from time immemorial. We rarely hear of this side of the equation with our senses flooded with scary and dangerous representations of this cat via TV and print media these days.

As much as we always wanted to, we never had a chance to witness even the tail of this big cat. With picking up its scats every day and being privy to the never-ending anecdotes of people’s interaction with this animal, we just knew it was there somewhere around us, hiding, looking at us quietly. I couldn’t describe it in any other way, but truly as the Phantom of the mountains.

Content by :Ritobroto Chanda

Edited by : Rhucha Kulkarni

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