THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE COLLARED CAT

Tracking the movements of a rescued leopard gives an animal rescue team new insight into the elusive, intelligent and shadowy nature of the beast. But what of the beast called man?

Saloni Bhatia and Kritika Kapadia Mumbai

A nervous crowd had gathered around a decrepit well in the heart of Takli Dhokeshwar village, close to the Pune—Nashik highway in Maharashtra. Nearby, a few curious children peeped through windows and doors. Those gathered around the well were straining to catch a glimpse of a leopard trapped in a crevice barely big enough to accommodate him. “Veheeret bibtya sapadlay (A leopard’s stuck in a well),” explained an old man to the approaching forest officials who had come to rescue the big cat that had fallen into an open well during his nightly hen chase.

In this rural part of the state (like in many others), leopards are known to prey on domestic and feral animals such as dogs, goats, sheep, pigs and hens. The tall and thick sugarcane fields provide ample cover, in the absence of forests. Partly due to its elusive nature, and partly because of the accommodative communities living here, the leopard has managed to survive with minimal conflict with humans.

Despite the conflicts, concern for the leopard shows in the attitude of the villagers who cooperate with forest officials to ensure the animal is unharmed. Rescuing leopards from wells can be tedious. The officials cannot tranquilize the animal in the well as it can drown in its sedated state. So, as usual, a ladder was lowered into the well with a trap cage attached to one end. After two days of hesitation, the 63-kg cat climbed cautiously up the ladder and into the trap. The officials moved him to a nearby forest nursery where, after being tranquilized and fitted with a GPS radio—collar, the leopard was released into the Malshej Ghat forest, 80 km away. Members of Project Waghoba, led by biologist Vidya Athreya, began tracking his movements. Since he was not a young male, he was christened Ajoba (meaning grandfather) and his gentle demeanour made him an instant favourite with the team.

Perhaps no one in the team could have foreseen what Ajoba would reveal to us once we began to track his movements. His adventurous journey commenced after a week of non—activity at the site of release – it was a journey to surprise the best of us. He climbed steep cliffs like Ratangad and Ajoba peak, crossed the Kasara railway station, the busy Mumbai—Agra Highway and headed due west from there. The researchers tracking the animal were left to ponder the inner workings of this prodigious cat’s mind. Often, the signals from the collar were not detectable as he traversed large distances – something we had no prior knowledge of. We discovered that he visited Wada village, staying as close as 5 km to human habitation.

As if this wasn’t enough, Ajoba, with a seeming flair for theatre, made his way towards Vasai Industrial Estate, perhaps in search of feral dogs. This was a likely place for a violent confrontation between people and animals. But Ajoba was on his way to another village, Sirsad, in Thane before finally entering Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary. After this, reception vanished for seven days. One fine morning, Ajoba’s tracking device suddenly beeped and he was under the scanner again. He had entered the Nagla block in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park sgnp, Mumbai, where he stayed for several days.  During his time here, he crossed the Ullas river back and forth, venturing into other parts of the park.

Soon, the collar malfunctioned (possibly due to Ajoba’s river crossing expedition) and the signals stopped completely. This obviously led to some disappointment but the data gathered during those 11 weeks was something to treasure. It presented a rare opportunity to explore the life of an urban carnivore that seemed at ease in his human- dominated landscape. Ajoba proved to be a fine example of his species and their tendencies. He was prudent, reclusive and shy. During his long journeys, he would venture nail-bitingly close to human civilization. However, experience had taught him how to steer clear of a close confrontation with humans in spite of the lack of forest cover in some of the areas he visited. He had perhaps even mastered the art of stealing goats and hens and nabbing dogs —easy prey for the grand old feline—reminding one of Eliot’s mystery cat, Macavity. 

Almost two-and-a-half years later, our mystery cat was discovered again. On December 3, 2011, a passer-by, Hitendra Mota, driving on the busy Ghodbunder road, saw a leopard being hit by a truck. He claimed that several vehicles whizzed past the big cat without a sign of slowing down. So, he and his friends bundled it into their vehicle and drove to sgnp, where, during the course of the check-up, Ajoba’s microchip was discovered. The injuries were too serious to be treated and Ajoba passed away, much to the sorrow of all of us who had heard of him and wanted to follow his trail some day. This cat had so much to teach us: apart from the distances he covered and the places he visited, he lived for a considerable 2.5 years after coming to Mumbai and was in a healthy condition when he died (weighing almost 72 kg!)

Playing true to his name, Ajoba provided substantial fodder for the human affinity for legendary stories verging on folklore. He allowed us to get a glimpse of leopard behaviour and ecology in human-dominated landscapes. His endurance of long distances across a range of habitats is awe-inspiring, however, the ability to weave in and out of human-dominated areas with fluid ease makes us wonder at the possibilities of human-leopard coexistence.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2014