Many A Slip – A Forest Story
August 2012: As we drove into Nagarahole’s green surrounds, we saw a herd of elephants grazing by the road. We stopped for a while to watch them and immersed ourselves in the tranquillity of the forest. It was then that we heard the chilling sounds of langurs calling. We slowly rolled our jeep towards the fray and turned the engine off. To our left we could see an infant langur hanging precariously on to a slender branch five metres off the ground. The mother sat nearby, on a larger tree, calling out frantically to her little one. Curious, we peered into the foliage, but saw nothing.
A twitching tail came into view
Spots slowly emerged from the undergrowth. A leopard lurked at the base of the tree. Almost cheetah-like, its torso caved in with hunger. After a 20-minute vigil, the cat began to clamber up the small bush-like tree towards the isolated langur baby. The mother langur watched helplessly before turning her back on the baby and resigning to the inevitable. The cat edged closer to the baby. The thin branch proved helpful in the langur's favour, as the 120-pound (54 kg.) leopard was too heavy to successfully make his way all the way up. Mesmerised, we sat glued as the drama unfolded and the leopard leapt and took a fierce swipe at the baby’s tail, causing the heavy leopard to lose its tentative grip and fall to the ground.
The branch was playing a key role in the outcome. It was not just too slender to support the leopard, but so slender it couldn’t support the mother langur either. This ruled out any form of rescue. Seemingly daunted by the impossibility of grabbing a meal, the leopard vanished into the forest after a few more cursory attempts.
Had the cat really called it a day?
The mother continued to sit a few trees away, making no attempt to reach its infant. Moments passed and the elusive beast was nowhere to be seen. Other langurs from across the road began calling. I scanned the undergrowth through my binoculars and there he was. He lay crouched a good 10 metres inside the forest, totally hidden with his powerful gaze fixated on the baby langur. Within seconds he was gone again.
Silence. The langurs stopped calling and the baby began to descend gingerly. With its life hanging in the balance, it scurried and made it as far as our car as it attempted to cross the road.
The silence was quickly broken and the forest ignited as the leopard sprang into the open and lifted the baby langur, which sat by our car, in his jaws. The sight of this caused much uproar as the occupants of another car at the scene began to shriek with excitement, causing the leopard to drop the langur and retreat a couple of metres. The terrified little baby seized the opportunity and crossed the road just inches in front of our car as another langur, not the mother, descended in a flash, grabbed the baby and transported it to the safety of a taller tree.
I have spent many years in the forest and witnessed many exciting wildlife moments, but this was a first for me. I kept an eye on the langur troupe, whose elders inspected the infant for any injuries. He seemed quite unscathed, given how close he was to death.
The leopard circled the area in disbelief. He had been robbed off his evening snack. After an hour he came to terms with the extraordinary turn of events and vanished into the thick of the forest.
Though magical, the whole incident sharply brought home the fact that by their mere presence, humans can and do change the dynamics of a forest.
by Shaaz Jung, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXII No. 4, August 2012