The strong smell of coffee brought me back to the present and to Jadhav’s question about catching these 'dangerous' leopards.
“Would you believe me if I said that the leopard is like a God for some people who live in this very forest? They worship leopards!”
Jadhav looked unconvinced. So, I shared with him the story of how I had come to learn this amazing fact.
One day, Parshu mama and I were at a waterhole that was frequented by various animals. I was busy observing some tracks in the mud that may have been made by pigs. But suddenly, I sensed some movement on the trail next to the waterhole. Looking up, I froze. It was a leopard!
Awe, fear, amazement all ran through me at once. I could hear my heart beating in the silent forest evening. I turned to Parshu mama and whispered, “Wagh!” But he was standing still, his eyes shut and was murmuring something.
I turned to the trail again but the leopard had disappeared. I wanted to go and look for it, but couldn’t gather the courage. I waited for Parshu mama to finish what I thought to be prayers. He said this was his first sighting since Padwa (New Year's day according to the Hindu calendar).
A Waghoba shrine enroute Asherigad
“We worship a big cat deity known as Waghoba, a deity in the form of leopards and tigers. He protects us and our livestock from evil. We consider Him to be the guardian of the forest. You must have seen the Waghoba temples and shrines that we make for worship” he explained.
As I finished my story, I looked out of the window to see if the leopard had returned. It hadn't. The children too had left for their homes.
“Oh, so these guys are not scared of them?” inquired Jadhav.
“No. They have been living with the animal since generations. They understand and respect it.”
Jadhav kept his coffee mug aside. “But we don’t live in the forest! Apart from the Warlis, I'm sure nobody wants the leopards around.”
“Let me tell you another story. This is not about a forest, but a totally different landscape – one where people have no clue about leopards. We were doing a survey in Akole, Maharashtra. Akole had been a drought prone area for a very long time. It was only after canals were built, bringing in water from rivers, that people started practicing sugarcane farming. A sugarcane crop is allowed to grow for about a year and half before being harvested. During this time, it is not disturbed. No one ventures into the field, making it the perfect place for a leopard to make its home."
I continued with my story, and Jadhav sat in rapt attention.
"Once, leopard cubs were found in one such field, and we rushed to the spot. People were working in the field. So, we decided to keep the cubs safe until evening and then release them with the help of the Forest Department. As the sun went down, we placed the three cubs in an open crate, left it near the fields and waited to see if the mother would turn up. Since it was a full moon night, we could keep an eye on the cubs from Daate kaka’s house, a short distance away. Soon the beautiful mother leopard emerged from the field and took the cubs back with her. There were some villagers waiting with us. The moment they saw the cubs being taken to safety, a wave of excitement ran through the entire house.
I was surprised. These same cubs might grow up and kill their livestock! When I checked with Daate kaka he said, “Beta, Akole was a drought prone zone. The sugarcane came thanks to the canals. It got us prosperity. But along with the sugarcane came the leopard. The leopard has an equal right to the sugarcane as I do. It is not even asking for profits. All he wants is some space to survive.”
Jadhav interrupted, “Nikit, your story reminds me of an instance from my village in Sawantwadi district. Once, a leopard took away a stray dog whom we used to feed regularly. I have heard of a lot of cases where a leopard attacked dogs or livestock.”
“True, leopards kill domestic prey as it is easily available around humans. But let me tell you an episode from your own Sawantwadi. We had gone there to see a Waghoba shrine, when we witnessed something unusual. A big pooja was organized in a village. People came in huge numbers. We were told it was because of a leopard cub.”
Preparation for the Waghoba pooja
Jadhav had a puzzled look on his face.
“Yes,” I continued. “I was puzzled too. I approached a man hoping he would be able to answer my questions. He turned out to be the village Sarpanch. He said, “We are celebrating the return of our Waghoba.” He kept repeating, ‘Aamcha waghoba parat ala,’ with a wide smile on his face. They were happy they had found a leopard cub after 18 years.”
Singing performed as a part of rituals during the Waghoba pooja
I could see a change on Jadhav’s face.
“I wasn’t aware of all these aspects related to leopards and humans,” he said. “I guess leopards may not be as bad as they are made out to be. There are two sides to everything. Sure, there are conflicts, but…”
Jadhav's sentence trailed off as the leopard below became visible again in the diffused street lights. It was stalking a dog adjacent to the wall. It was about to pounce when the headlights of an approaching car gave away its position. The dogs chased the leopard back onto the wall. Jadhav was watching the drama with keen interest. Maybe tonight’s stories had made him look at the leopard a little differently. I sure hoped so!
P.S. Some of the images are representational images to suit the blog. The names mentioned are fictitious names given to the actual characters. This article was first printed in a small book for kids — People and Wildlife.
By Nikit Surve