In the forests of Kabini, photographer Shaaz Jung learnt a lot about leopards, and eventually, something deep and profound about himself.
‘It was the coldest of winters, for he still remembers, forever he wears the scar. Remember, remember the dark skies of December, where he was the brightest star.’
My journey started with a young male, who quickly grew to be one of the most iconic leopards of India. In early 2010, he took over territory from his father in a bloody battle that left a famous scar. We call him Scarface and on that dark December night, he emerged from the thicket in a winter squall to take the forest and my life by storm.
Scarface was unlike any other. He would be most active in broad daylight and hunt his prey at the hottest hours of the day. He never carried his kill up a tree; instead, he preferred to bury it in the thick undergrowth. He spent his nights on a comfortable branch and we would often see him lying exactly where we left him the previous evening. He was as loyal a male leopard could possibly get. His territory spanned over 30km of Kabini’s tourism zone, which offered him a plethora of females to mate with. But Scarface only chose two; year after year, the same two. Cleopatra and Boor were his favourite as he was theirs. The trio had a beautifully strange understanding among themselves. Between them, they owned the backwaters of Kabini and raised many cubs together. One of my most memorable sightings was seeing Boor’s seven-month-old litter playing on a Banyan tree with Cleopatra’s five-month-old litter. The mothers must have been nearby keeping a watch over their cubs, but it goes to show that if food is plentiful, leopards aren’t necessarily territorial.
These characteristics defied all leopard behaviour, or at least what the books had taught us. But there were other leopards out there that lived their lives very differently.
On a dreary monsoon evening, the deer were alert and signalled danger as their shrill cries added to the tense atmosphere. You could sense a predator was on the move. We waited and within minutes, a large male, much larger than Scarface, appeared from the undergrowth. His ears were shredded and he soon became the resident male of another territory that bordered Scarface’s. Torn Ears was the epitome of a dominant male. He was most active at dawn and dusk, where he marked every road and tree with his scent. Unlike other leopards, he was very vocal and would often be heard roaring when on the move. He was aggressive and took the forest by storm as he quickly expanded his territory and roped in over seven females. Unlike Scarface, he preferred to stash his kill on a tree and was more nocturnal than diurnal; crepuscular to be precise. If Scarface preferred to move in the thicket, Torn Ears was fearless and used the safari tracks to meander through the woods. Of late, his audacious nature has eventually led to his downfall as he lost over 40 percent of his territory. His eagerness to expand led to many fights and it was only a matter of time before he encountered a male stronger and more daring than him. In the summer of 2015, he did, which eventually led to the rise of Kabini’s most prized possession; the black panther.
Though the panther is just a leopard with excess melanin, we soon discovered his behaviour to be unusually different. Leopards were said to be least active during the monsoon rains but the panther, on the other hand, was at his liveliest in the rain. That is possibly due to his dark coat, which absorbs heat much faster, making him less active in the summer and more mobile in the cooler months. My best sightings of him have been during the off-season, in pouring rain. His courting methods, on the other hand, have baffled us all. He has been seen courting two female leopards at once and has done this three times, each time with a different pair of females. No other leopard in the area has ever been documented to do this and it’s almost as if he knew his gene is extremely rare, which gave him a greater incentive to spread it.
Over time, I realised that leopards just like humans had individual characteristics. Each had their little idiosyncrasies that made them different from one another. Contrary to past research and many books, it was wrong to assume every leopard was the same or had similar characteristics.
Some leopards like Cleopatra, the backwater female, would never scavenge, while most other females were documented to eat two- or three-day-old prey that had either died naturally or was killed by another predator. Each had their unique courting techniques. Some loved to mate on trees, while others preferred only the ground. Some courting pairs stayed and hunted together for more than a month while others only courted for a less than a week. They all ate, slept, hunted at different hours and used the forest to their advantage, in different ways, based on their size, age and time of the year. Marble and Storm, the two blue-eyed females, loved the rain and would often be seen on stormy days sitting on trees, enjoying getting wet. Did I hear anyone say leopards hated water? An old legend we call Monk would submerge his feet in the water that he drank while some others wouldn’t let even an inch of their paw get wet.
Monk was the temple male and hidden deep inside the woods lay his temple; a magnificent 300-year-old stone structure that was built by the Chola tribe. He often spent many monsoon evenings sitting on it as he basked in a rare ray of sun after the rains. Monk was the oldest leopard around. He was 13 years old when I saw him bring down a spotted deer and, with no canines, he shredded the skin with his claws before eating it.
Scarface sat there and cared not for the passage of time. He was almost nine and didn’t have long left, but he was as calm as the ocean.
Over the years, these leopards became my life. Some were my teachers and others were my healers. Together we created many memories and forged beautiful relationships. I still remember how, on a still summer afternoon, I sat with Scarface on the seventh-year anniversary of when I first saw him. I looked at my watch; I knew the exact time, day and month. I looked around and couldn’t help wonder how time had no meaning out here. Scarface sat there and cared not for the passage of time. He was almost nine and didn’t have long left, but he was as calm as the ocean. He didn’t measure time like I did and unlike humans, he and the creatures around him lived in harmony and without any fear of time running out. I learnt something very important that day. I learnt how not to measure the hour and discovered how to find eternity in a timeless forest. I discovered a calmness within me that grew with every passing day as I tracked. I slowly rediscovered myself through nature’s beautiful ways.
My journey through these woods has been nothing short of magical. We have witnessed some amazing creatures behave in the most unexpected ways and made some amazing discoveries of animals we know so little about. The forest truly is a place of learning and no matter how much we think we know, Mother Nature always has a way of showing us something new. I will forever be her student, for I have learnt so much from her and her animals; lessons that no human can ever teach me.