A camera trap picture of our visiting leopard.
Living on the edge of the Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary is delightful, fascinating and mostly quite wonderful. But sometimes it can get really frustrating too. In spite of living surrounded by nature for almost 30 years, it’s difficult to become blasé. We still thrill at the sight of eagles soaring, swifts and swallows living in a hidden cave. The majesty of the Indian bison, the captivating grace of spotted deer and the fleeting glimpse of a big cat, panther or tiger is worth a lifetime’s patient waiting and watching.
There’s always a mix of frustration thrown in with the joy, though. Many local people, furious when their crops are eaten up or trampled upon, put traps out to ensnare wild hare, porcupine and smaller game. Or devastating little bombs to blow up the wild boar that come to eat their tapioca. When the sambar deer demolish my entire garden in one night, I’m thankful for the presence of our visiting leopard and the devilish wild dogs who drive them away. Or eat them.
Recently a leopard died, ensnared in a trap. It was pregnant with three cubs, which made it all the more tragic. However, its death makes the owner of the land culpable, even if that person is a totally committed vegetarian who would probably die rather than kill a fly. I think that’s unfair. All of us who live here are always wary of any animal being killed on our land, even if we had nothing to do with it. We end up having serious problems with the forest department, even if we are avid conservationists and wildlife lovers.
If I could, I would issue shoot-at-sight orders in the Kruger National Park where poachers in helicopters are flying in daily, to wantonly and cold-bloodedly kill rhinos for their horns. Yet I find it hard to be judgemental about adivasis who lay traps to catch wild hare or small game, or the poor farmers killing wild boar, however horrifying the image, to save their tapioca.
On a less grim note, there are now regular episodes worth recording in an encounter-with-the-wild kind of series. At our forest checkpost near Thorapally, the entrance to the Mudumalai sanctuary, a wild elephant provides tourists with a daily dose of free entertainment. It comes for its evening fix of jackfruit, this being the jackfruit season. And elephants will trek miles in search of this, their favourite fruit. Most people in the area have cut down their jackfruit trees to avoid elephant trouble. But a gang of vendors ready to face danger rather than lose out this seasonal bounty from the tourists, brave the wild elephant with stalls flaunting the forbidden fruit. This is literally inviting trouble. The elephant saunters over and the poor guard on duty at the checkpost has to face the wrath of the elephant if he doesn’t open the gate. It has already broken the gate several times this season. He’s cursed by angry vendors if he does, or charged by the belligerent pachyderm if he doesn’t. Unenviable position. The elephant puts on the daily show every year at this time. Its antics provide amusement to everyone around, but if the elephant kills someone, it will not be funny.
A few years ago, the Douthwaite family from Ireland were visiting us when we were all spellbound by the loud mating sounds of a pair of big cats. We'll never know if they were tigers or leopards. Foolishly – foolhardy may be the more correct word – we all rushed out, creeping closer and closer to the loud cat calls. If the animals had rolled into our midst, I doubt they’d have been amused. Neither, I suspect, would we have found it very funny. Howsomever, it was a tale we all lived to tell.