Arun Fulara writes about a leopard who lives in a village up in the hills of Kumaon.
Photo: Arun Fulara
The leopard in my village of Mayun, in the hills of Kumaon, has always fascinated me. Mayun is a small nondescript village, a few kilometres along a newly-laid tar road from the temple town of Bageshwar at the confluence of rivers Saryu and Gomti. Our house, set apart from the rest of the village, overlooks the little hamlet. The house stands a stone’s throw from a complex of rocky underground caves in the hills. This, as we learnt early on, was where the leopard lived. Every summer vacation we spent a month in the old house. We kept ourselves warm, chatting over endless cups of tea. Often, the leopard would find mention in the villagers’ tales.
“It was sleeping in the stack of hay when I saw it,” someone would say. “It suddenly came in front of me right on this road,” would say another, pointing to the road that ran in front of our house. As children, we lived in anticipation and fear of the leopard during the dozen or so trips to the village.
In all these conversations, what fascinated me the most was the acceptance of the animal that the villagers displayed. An old man who claimed to have had many interactions with the leopard, even gave it a name – ‘Sheru’. The people harboured a strong sense of acknowledgement of the animal’s right to the jungle and a life of freedom. Yes, there was fear, but it did not override their sense of justice.
Most considered the cat harmless. “The leopard doesn’t attack humans, and it most certainly doesn’t harm people from our village, because this is his home as well,” the villagers would say. As simple as that!
PART OF THE FAMILY
Of course it’s not the same leopard they saw. Over the years, many leopards have made their home in those caves. These cats are a part of the village, spoken of as temperamental members of the family, who people keep a distance from, but do not necessarily fear. Some consider them the goddess’ representative and believe the leopards look over them on her behalf. This world view makes sense if you consider the fact that our village lies in close proximity to the temple town of Bageshwar, where Lord Shiva is worshipped as the deity of wild cats.
But for a long time, this phenomenon confounded me. Coming from a distant suburb in Mumbai, I was not used to seeing wild animals. Animals have never been a part of my life, therefore such effortless acceptance of a wild cat took me by surprise. The media reports on leopard-human interaction that would regularly make their way into my news feed focused exclusively on instances of leopard attacks on humans. Human encroachment of their habitats, shrinking forests and dwindling wild prey, the reports said, were the main causes of conflict.
But what about the leopard that lived around our village, but never attacked any human? Was our village an anomaly? Not really. I realised this when I stumbled upon the pioneering work done on leopards by Dr. Vidya Athreya and her team in Maharashtra. Their study shows that these shy wild cats have adapted to living around humans and feeding on livestock. They rarely attack humans. However, with adequate precaution, human-leopard interaction could be managed peacefully without threat of life to either. This realisation went well with the popular perception that existed in my village. Over the last few years, the leopard has preyed upon goats and dogs in the village, but when confronted by a human it quickly retires into the forest. The villagers too, leave the leopard alone and never seek retribution for any loss of their livestock.
Urban lives, cut off from nature, breed fear in humans. Animals are, at best, toys for amusement and at worst, a nuisance to be done away with. Consequently, the city dweller’s feelings towards wildlife oscillate between the two.
The harmonious middle path of the people of Mayun, is the only ‘sustainable’ way to coexist with wild cats. The alternative, a world without these large felines, while unimaginable, will have lost its sense of wonder.
Author: Arun Fulara, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 3, March 2018.