I’m currently in Valparai, Tamil Nadu doing some work with the Nature Conservation Foundation folks. Lot of events this week, which I shall write about later.
Few weeks ago, an old lady was injured from what was reported as an attack by a leopard in this town. There was no conclusive evidence, but the forest department was pressurized to setup Leopard traps outside the town to catch this Leopard. Valparai is surrounded by Tea estates and forest fragments and leopard sightings are quite common.
Anyway this morning we got a call that a leopard was caught in one of the traps.
By the time Anand (NCF researcher) and me reached the place, there were already a lot of people who had come to see the leopard. There were housewives, kids, estate workers, grandmothers.. you name it and they were there to see the leopard. Soon we realized the situation was getting out of hand. People were getting close to the cage and hassling the leopard, which in turn was getting very agitated and hurting itself againt the bars.
I stopped photographing at this point. Not only that we had to do something, me trying to photograph was also getting people ticked off. Both of us along with 2 forest guards started talking to people and were trying to keep them away at a distance from the cage. We covered the cage with a lot of bushes so that the leopard cannot see all the people around.
The leopard was already quite badly injured because of all the banging and was highly stressed out.
Eventually Divya and Sridhar from NCF also joined us and all of us along with help from the fire dept and the forest department were trying to keep people away from the leopard till the Vet arrived from Coimbatore which was 3 hours away. We took a lot of abuses and got into issues with local VIP’s who thought they had every right to come and see and poke the leopard. Eventually the Vet came in by 2pm and already the there were hundreds of people around with all the press and all.
As you can see the leopard was badly wounded and it was very close to dying because of all the stress with people around. After 2 misses, the vet got it right and darted the leopard.
Within minutes, it went down and rested it head on the floor. I just got down and with a zoom lens and thanks to a gap in the leaves around the cage, I just locked my focus on the leopard and kept on shooting.
A tear rolled down its eye and the leopard slowly went down. I cocooned myself from the whole crowd as the cops were taking care of them and I could not see anything but the face of the leopard through the camera. I just broke down at this point and walked away. Could not see all the people going crazy and this poor leopard in that cage in that state. All the screaming, pleading, arguing did not help at all.
Eventually the drug took its effect and the forest dept moved it out to a truck. People started climbing the truck etc as if this was some state funeral for the president. We kept on kicking / throwing away people to keep them away from the leopard. Eventually the truck drove off towards Top Slip and hopefully at the end of the day it will be released safely. Ofcourse I dont know if the leopard will make it. Its stressed out too much and being in a new place, it will have a very tough initial few days.
Today was one of those days when I had to put down my camera and help the situation than try to document it. Felt like went though a war zone and survived.
Update : The leopard did make it alive it seems. Hope it manages in the wild at Top Slip.