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Black Panthers in Periyar

What struck me most about the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala, when I visited it with my family early this year, was the wealth of flora and fauna flourishing there. The Eco-development Project started a few years ago has been a boon to the reserve and to the people traditionally dependent on the forest for livelihood.

 By organising effective and controlled linkages between these people and collection of the forest produce the Project ensures that the people dependent on the forest have a steady flow of income without disturbing the ecological balance of the biosphere. Human activity within the reserve appeared to be almost negligible compared to the large-scale infiltration of unscrupulous interests in some other parks in the country. Apart from the several species of mammals like elephant, gaur, sambar, leopard and birds hornbill, spur fowl, osprey, barbets etc., we also saw a wide variety of plants and trees like the rosewood, jamun, fig and bamboo.

While all our sightings were exciting the climax came towards the end of our stay. On the day of our departure, at a place close to Mullakkudy, while travelling in a boat at about 8 a.m., I noticed a movement to our right front at a distance of about 100 yards, on a more or less open patch of land adjoining dense forests. It did not look like anything we had seen in the reserve so far. What could it be? Was it a leopard? Yes! There was no mistaking it now. It was a leopard and a black leopard cub at that! A black leopard at that unlikely hour! What luck! It was walking almost nonchalantly with an adult, in all probability its mother who was of normal coloration.

Torn between the desire, to look through the binoculars, or, to film the scene and with mounting excitement I tried to focus the camera on the wonderful spectacle that was unfolding before us, the bobbing motion of the boat and utter pandemonium around me notwithstanding! Outside the chequered pattern of sunlight and shadow of the forest floor the contrast between the two was sharp. While one was of normal yellowish-brown colour between the spots that made up the rosettes the other appeared to be jet-black with only a faint suggestion of rosettes at certain angles as the coat shone and glinted in the early morning sun.

Somewhere close and just beyond the open patch we could hear the harsh croaks and rattling bellows of a hornbill. Presently, on coming closer, on way to the dense forest to our right the cub became curious and kept stopping every now and then to look in our direction while the older one seemed less concerned. Soon the two disappeared into the forest. As expected the staff and officials at the park office were quite excited about the sighting and told us that such sightings were extremely rare.

By V.S. Ohri
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