The Hunting-Leopards Of Saranda
The trail of the cheetah in India has been obscured by the sands of time. Raza Kazmi painstakingly dug up fresh references on the existence of cheetahs in the Saranda region and presents his conclusions here, which are in line with the long-held belief that wild cheetahs did exist in India for eons. This view is, of course, at variance with the thesis presented by Valmik Thapar et. al. in their book, Exotic Aliens (Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, April 2013). The debate on the origin of cheetahs in India is clearly destined to run its course.
Photo Courtesy: Edmondson & Douglas, 1860.
Tracing the history of cheetahs in Saranda and other parts of Jharkhand has been a pretty difficult job. Very scant literature is available on the species’ natural history in India as a whole, and it is miniscule for the present day state of Jharkhand. Unlike in the Deccan or northern or western India, the sport of coursing with cheetahs was unknown here, and no Mughal or other princely hunting records from this area exist. Few Britishers wrote about the fauna of this part of Hindoostaan. So it wasn’t much of a surprise that before I undertook this work, only five references to the occurrence of cheetahs in Jharkhand were known (two from Deoghar in the erstwhile ‘Santal Parganas’, one from Palamau, one from Palkot in Gumla district and one from Saranda). My work has managed to unearth three new cheetah references from Saranda alone and another 11 hitherto unrecorded references from Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal.Apart from a single book describing the cheetahs of Saranda in some detail, all the other sources for reconstructing the cheetah story in Jharkhand are scattered snippets on the animal in a few shikar books, District Gazetteers and other government records. As a result, all the narratives and references to the cheetah in the state start and end within a span of 100 years, from the early 19th century to the early 20th century. I have yet to come across any narrative of cheetahs in Jharkhand prior to the 19th century.
Another problem I faced was the fact that those few references I had with me were written at a time when the administrative-divisions of the area were completely different from what they are now. So I was burdened with the additional task of studying the history of each of Jharkhand’s 24-odd districts in order to pinpoint the present-day locations of the cheetah-bearing areas cited in the 19th and the early 20th century texts.
A LEOPARD OR A CHEETAH?
And then there was yet another contentious issue at hand – the name of the animal itself! There are very real chances that cheetahs may have been bracketed as leopards in a number of historical texts. In those days, there was great ambiguity among hunters, administrators and naturalists alike regarding the nomenclature of leopards and cheetahs. A sample of this confusion is seen in Edward B. Baker’s book, Sport in Bengal: How, when and where to seek it published in 1886, which suggests that the word “leopard” should be applied to the “cheetah” while what is generally called a “leopard” should be called a “panther”!
Baker wrote, “We have three distinct species, not counting, of course, the ‘cheetah,’ or hunting-leopard (F. jubata), viz.: first, the F. pardus or leopardus (whether you choose to call it panther or leopard), divided into two varieties, the greater and the lesser; secondly, the F. (pardus or leopardus) melas, or black panther; and thirdly, the F. (pardus or leopardus) macrocelis, or clouded panther. If the designation ‘leopardus’ or lion-pard, is to be understood as indicative of the appearance of the beast, it is an unfortunate one, because the Bengal pard bears no resemblance whatever to the lion, whereas F. jubata does so to the small extent of displaying long fur or hair on its crest, neck, and breast, and also some slight resemblance in its tail, which is thickly furred at its extremity. It seems, therefore, that the name of leopard should be applied in ordinary conversation to the Felis jubata, or ‘cheetah,’ alone, and that of pard or panther to the others. I shall abide by this rule in all mention of these creatures, and I respectfully commend it for the consideration of the learned as both reasonable and convenient.”
As one of the standard texts on the wildlife of Bengal Presidency for a number of years, Baker’s book could have caused many other authors (especially those of the Bengal District Gazetteers) to classify cheetahs as leopards and leopards as panthers. And Baker’s opinion wasn’t an isolated one – Sterndale echoed the same view in his book Natural History of Mammalia of India and Ceylon and so did a number of other authors.
To avoid repeating the error and for the sake of uniformity, I have included only those references that explicitly use the Latin name “jubata”, or the term “hunting-leopard”, or wherein I’m convinced that the author while using the term “cheetah”, is aware of the striking characteristics that differentiate it from leopards.
Photo Courtesy: Charles E Clay, 1895.
THE SARANDA LANDSCAPE
It is generally believed that the cheetah is only found in the more open parts of the scrub jungle of Central India, but I have killed them in the dense forest of Saranda in Chhota Nagpur. The skin is differently marked to that of the panther. Both have a yellowish brown ground with black spots. The spots on the panther are rosettes; on the cheetah they are simply black dabs without a central opening of yellow… The cheetah, or hunting-leopard, in no way resembles the ordinary leopard or panther. The latter has retractile claws like the cat, while the cheetah’s paws are like those of the dog. Most shikarees are agreed that he belongs to the hyaena family, and is to that animal what the greyhound is to the foxhound.
So wrote Mervyn A. Smith in his book Sports and Adventure in the Indian Jungle. Published in March 1904, the book was a compilation of his stories that had originally appeared in columns of the Calcutta Statesman over the years. The approximate time-period of the events he narrated would have been the late 19th century.
The forests of Singhbhum district, better known as the Saranda landscape straddle south Jharkhand and parts of northern Orissa. Saranda, Asia’s largest sal forest, was once one of the richest “game-tracts” in India, copiously stocked with tigers, leopards, deer, gaur, elephants, Central Indian wild buffaloes, dholes and several other smaller forest denizens. A favorite hunting ground of the British officers posted in Bengal, the forests of Saranda were described as “savage, rugged, uninhabited, and infested with wild beasts; where the rivers swarmed with fish, reptiles and crocodiles”. Today’s Saranda is emblematic of the brutal destruction of Jharkhand’s flora and fauna. There are no more than a few dozen chital in the approximately 1,000 sq. km. core area Saranda division. A handful of sambar might survive though they have not been seen for years and even the most optimistic estimates peg the leopard population at fewer than a dozen. A few hundred elephants somehow tenaciously hold on – a relic of the wonder that was Saranda. With the wild animals all but gone by the late ’80s, the big mining companies came in, and hundreds of mines (both legal and illegal) representing all the major players gnawed away their “fair share” of the forest. Mining townships came up in the heart of Saranda. Saranda became an abyss – people began dying due to lung ailments caused by iron-dust that envelopes the environs of mined areas. The once pristine Karo and Koina rivers turned into envenomed drains. What happened to the mahseer, crocs and other aquatic fauna that “swarmed” these rivers is no mystery. And then came the Maoists, making this degraded landscape a bastion of theirs – the locals, already stung by the mining onslaught, were now caught in the crossfire between the rebels and the security forces. So it was the local extinction of wildlife from Saranda that created fertile ground for the eventual entry of the big-mining industries, and this is a glaring example of the perils faced by the east-central Indian forests, most of which, like Saranda, are afflicted by the “empty forest syndrome”. Saranda is on its last lease today, and even though an odd transient tiger sometimes wanders into these forests via the narrow degraded Saranda-Similipal corridor, it is all but a lost cause.
Courtesy: Raza Kazmi.
Why focus on Jharkhand’s cheetahs?
The forests of Jharkhand – literally meaning ‘The Land of Forests’ – once used to be the prime shooting blocks for yesteryear British Sahebs posted in Bengal. “The finest shooting grounds I know of in India – and I have been over the greater part of the country – are in Chota-Nagpore”, wrote one of them. Those were the days of plenty. Today, it’s a completely different land – gone are the Sahebs, and the plentiful wildlife. Most of the state’s erstwhile wild bastions – Saranda, Hazaribagh and Chatra being the most prominent – have been completely destroyed. A relict population of Jharkhand’s major fauna makes a last stand in the famed forests of Palamau. As I discovered during my research, the list of animals gone extinct from the state is long – Asiatic lion, Indian rhinoceros, Indian cheetah, gharial, Pink-headed Duck and Central Indian wild buffalo to name a few. The loss has been tremendous and unparalleled, and even now there seems no end to it. And it’s this sense of loss, and the grief that followed it, that inspired me to research the state’s illustrious past. Even though the story of every animal on the aforementioned extinction list deserves to be penned down separately, I decided to focus on the little-known story of the cheetahs of Jharkhand.
A MAGNIFICENT CAT
Though there are no known records up until now of the cheetah’s occurrence on the Orissa side of Saranda, it’s likely that it might have existed there given the contiguity of the forests. However, the forests of Saranda were the southernmost limit of the cheetah’s range in Jharkhand. Cheetahs in this landscape, akin to their counterparts in other cheetah-bearing areas of India, did prey upon small and medium-sized livestock in the periphery of the forests. Mervyn Smith writes of several accounts where cheetahs made off with cattle and goats. He narrates the incredible feat of a 40 kg. cheetah preying on a calf thrice his own weight.
Not long ago one of these brutes entered the village of Bendee during the dark hours just before dawn. It dug a passage for itself through the wattle-and-dab walls of the bazaar-man’s hut, seized and killed a two-year-old calf, and endeavoured to drag the body through the passage it had made for itself, but the calf’s body was too large to pass that way. The noise made by the cheetah’s efforts to drag the calf through the hole in the wall awakened an old woman who was sleeping in the hut, and she immediately opened the door, rushed out and raised an outcry. The cheetah, seeing the door open, re-entered the dwelling and pulled the calf away through the door! It made off to a neighbouring nullah and there devoured the stomach and a great part of the rump. The calf certainly weighed over 200 lbs.; yet the cheetah was able to drag the body several hundred yards, when its own weight could not have been over 70 lbs. even if full grown.
A few rare narrations by others such as T. G. Fraser who recorded a cheetah hunting a full-grown sambar in the grasslands of Burhanpur, lend further support to the argument that cheetahs could indeed hunt animals many times their own body-weight.
Mervyn Smith also narrates a curious incident of a cheetah making off with a pet chital, at a place called Jaraikela abutting Saranda. Jaraikela must not be confused with Saraikela though, as has inadvertently been done in Divyabhanusinh’s book, the former being a small station on the Mumbai-Howrah Trunk line. Its location has been marked on the map.
Much like leopards, cheetahs also seem to have had a liking for domestic dogs, or at least that was the case here in Saranda. Mervyn Smith personally lost as many as seven dogs to the cheetahs over a period of 18 months, and one such account has been narrated by him in some detail.
I’ve also come across a hitherto unrecorded new reference of two cheetahs being shot near Somij, a village inside/on the periphery of the Saranda forests.
Beema, the bagh-maree, has to my knowledge accounted for two panthers, two cheetahs (hunting-leopards), one tiger and one bear. Their skins now adorn the verandah of my bungalow. These animals were all killed within a mile of the village of Somij (Chota Nagpore district), and in about two months’ time.
Photo Courtesy: Richard Lydekker’s, 1896.
A GRASSLAND SPECIALIST IN THE FOREST?
Cheetahs of Central and Northwest India were almost always encountered in grasslands or open scrub and rocky landscapes. However, the last cheetahs to be shot in India were found inhabiting the dense sal forests of Korea district in present day Chhattisgarh state. But they were in all probability stragglers that had been pushed to seek refuge in the forested areas of north Chhattisgarh due to persecution and destruction of their preferred habitat. This belief is based on the statements of Maharaja Ram Chandra Singh Deo, who said:
It is strange that hunting-leopards were found in Ramgarh region in 1951 as the area is not a proper habitat for them. The area is very heavily forested and the forests stretch to 50-60 miles in all directions.
Ramgarh is located inside what is today the Guru Ghasidas National Park in Chhattisgarh’s Korea district. The last cheetahs to be shot in India – three brothers – by Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo of Korea were killed a mere six kilometres from this spot during a night drive in 1947. I have visited Ramgarh and the neighbouring village of Turripani where another cheetah was claimed to have been sighted by Maharaja Ram Chandra Singh Deo in May 1967, and even today this area is covered in thick forest with rolling hills on all sides, jutted with small open flat cultivated lands here and there in between. Divyabhanusinh argues that Ramgarh’s terrain, being an open, flat, cultivated patch surrounded by scrub and degraded forest interspersed with small, open, grassland patches, may have attracted cheetahs that had sought refuge in the nearby sal forest.
But was this the case in the Saranda landscape as well? It’s important to note than unlike Korea where cheetahs were shot in the last phase of their existence in the country, those in Saranda were shot/observed in the mid to late 19th century, about a century prior to their extinction. So could it be that the cheetahs of the Saranda landscape, unlike their counterparts in central, peninsular and northwestern India, actually have adapted themselves to the dense sal forest habitat and made it their preferred habitat as well? Or were these cheetahs, like all others of their race, inhabitants of the more open areas around Saranda where they hunted, and only sought refuge in Saranda’s dense forests?
Theoretically speaking, it is possible that the cheetahs had adapted to the habitat here. I say this because even today there are very few scrub forests in and around Saranda. All the areas where cheetahs were seen or shot were either inside or adjacent to Saranda’s dense sal forests. However, since there is no solid data on the cheetah population of the area over a considerable period of time to conclude on its habitat-use pattern, the above viewpoint of mine is at best just a hypothesis. For the time being, it seems the answer will remain a mystery.
Saranda’s cheetahs probably disappeared by the dawn of the 20th century. None of the District Gazetteers of Singhbhum, starting from W. W. Hunter’s statistical record of 1877 to O’Malley’s Gazetteer of 1910, make any mention of the cheetah among the fauna of the district. V. Ball, the famous geologist who recorded his extensive travels in the region of Chhota-Nagpur, Singhbhum, North Chhattisgarh, Central and Northern Orissa between 1865-1878 in his book Jungle Life in India makes no mention of the cheetah during his travels here in present-day Jharkhand. So, it seems that the cheetah, just like in the rest of its historical range in India, was never very abundant in this landscape either, or at least that was the case by the mid-19th century. Coupled with the insatiable appetite for hunting among the Hos and the Kols, even the stragglers must have been wiped out by the turn of the 20th century.
For me, the story of Saranda’s cheetahs is essentially the story of Saranda’s demise. Once a forested haven for sundry and copious wildlife, over the years this beautiful forest has withered away just like its forgotten cheetahs — uncared-for and unmourned!
The above article on Saranda’s cheetahs is one of the chapters in Raza Kazmi’s research paper, Jharkhand’s Last Hunting-leopards. To read more, write to Raza
NOTE: The images on these pages are for visual depiction only and do not represent references pertaining specifically to the Saranda region.
Chronology of New Cheetah References
c. 1835: Chhota Nagpore province, cheetah or hunting-leopard exists (Henry Spry, 1837)
1874: Modoopore (Madhupur) Village, Nawda Block, Murshidabad District, West Bengal, One cheetah killed, (Raoul, 1893)
c. 1875: Somij Village, Saranda Forests, West Singhbhum district, Jharkhand, two cheetahs killed, (Mervyn Smith, 1904)
c. 1875: Erstwhile Sambalpur district, Orissa, cheetah obtained, (V. Ball, 1880)
c. 1877: Erstwhile Hazaribagh district, Jharkhand, cheetah or dog-leopard occasionally found,(W. W. Hunter, 1877)
c. 1880: Bendee village, Saranda forests, West Singhbhum district, cheetah enters a village and makes off with a calf, (Mervyn Smith, 1904)
c. 1880 – c. 1882: Saranda, West Singhbhum district, Jharkhand, cheetahs kill atleast seven dogs belonging to Mervyn Smith, (Mervyn Smith, 1904)
1907: Erstwhile Palamau district, Jharkhand, cheetah occasionally seen, (L. S. S. O’Malley, 1907)
c. 1909: Erstwhile Sambalpur District, Orissa, cheetah met with occasionally in the open country to the south and west, (L. S. S. O’Malley, 1909)
c. 1910: Palkot and Biru Hills, Gumla District, Jharkhand, cheetah or Hallett’s ‘Rock Panther’ common; eight ‘leopards/panthers’ (some of them cheetahs?) obtained from this area in a year,(M. G. Hallett, 1917)
c. 1915: Erstwhile Orissa (Princely) States, Orissa, a few cheetahs shot, (L. S. S. O’Malley, 1917)
c. 1923: Nagar-Untari, Garhwa District, Jharkhand, cheetah (?) carrying off children from the neighbourhood, (P. C. Tallents, 1926)
c. 1926: Erstwhile Palamau District, Jharkhand, cheetah occasionally seen, (P. C. Tallents, 1926)
c. 1935: Erstwhile Palamau District, Jharkhand, cheetah believed to survive in Palamau, (John Houlton, 1949)
The easternmost limit of cheetahs in India was previously thought to be Deoghar in Santhal Parganas. There has never been, up until now, any reference to cheetahs in lands east of Deoghar. But now, the Madoopore cheetah reference proves that not only did they occur further east of Deoghar, they were found almost up to what is now the Bangladesh border. Located almost 200 km. southeast of Deoghar, Madhupur village is located just about 20 km. as the crow flies west of the Indo-Bangladesh border! Inspite of numerous efforts, I could not find the current locations of Somij and Bendee villages. It is possible that these villages have ceased to exist/were shifted out during the settlement of Saranda Reserve Forest/had their names changed.
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 2, April 2014.