Stranger than fiction
Advance science has no explanation for some of the mysteries of nature; only Almighty knows. Unprecedented strange relationships between a wild leopard and its prey-the cow observed in Antoli village in Vadodara district in Gujarat was one of such unbelievable mysteries.
The story begins in the summer, just after author’s joining duty in Vadodara Circle in June 2002. The leopard sightings were reported regularly from Antoli, a village about 20 km. away from Jambughoda Sanctuary and 40 km. from Vadodara city. In Antoli, a female leopard had chosen to litter in a sugarcane field, surviving on pigs, rodents, Indian hare, domestic dogs, birds, large frogs and the like, with the occasional goat thrown in for good measure. The irrigated agricultural fields had tall crops most of the times, providing adequate hides, linkages with nearby ravines, and easy movement of the big carnivores. As every part of the forest is heavily grazed, the leopardesses do not find safe hide and move in deeper part of sugar cane field for safety of their cubs. Infact, sugar cane fields contribute significantly for reproduction of the leopards. Sometimes leopardess moves far away from the forest boundary to select such field in the villages for littering.
By September 2002, the complaints began to pour in thick and fast. As a result, the forest officers decided to do something to address the problem of the villagers. People from Antoli village reported that a leopard with a cub was seen frequently in the evening and night. Such complains were normal in the region where man-animal conflict was common due to increase in the leopard’s population and absence of prey base in their habitats. In fragmented habitat or food scarce area, the leopard shift location and move away from original habitat to nearby area for some period to harvest food available in particular season. In such a situation, the Department avoided capturing the harmless animals. When complains reached the Forest Minister at Gandhinagar, the author was asked by the minister, Daulat Singh Desai to look into the matter. After consulting the Chief Wildlife Warden, it was decided to capture the animal from the area. The trap cage with a live bait was arranged at a suitable site by the staff. First photo record with video was recorded by Manoj Thaker, a naturalist from Vadodara. The range forest officer, forester, Rohit Vyas, Honorary Wildlife Warden, Manoj Thakar, nature lovers from Vadodara and their friends spent several nights in the village and trapped the female leopard successfully at about 2 O’clock at night on 20th September 2002, and released it into a nearby forest in the early morning.
The villagers witnessed trapping of the leopard and had a great relief but were unhappy as they lost an important guest with whom they had developed an intimacy. Also, the leopard was economical to them as they had a high crop yield because the cat’s presence in the village would protect damage of crop at night from jackals and wild boars.
A month later the complaints began to pour in again. The villagers believed that the leopard caught was probably the mother of a young leopard that roamed the area. When the forest staff and wild lifers visited the village, they came across a story so strange that the author refused to believe it at first. The village was dominated by Patel, an upper caste community, and lower caste inhabited at the fringe of the settlement, as normally found in the Indian villages. A family belonging to backward caste lived in the fringe of habitation with a cow, a buffalo calf and two bullocks. The animals in the open field in front of the house had open access from agricultural fields from three sides. The elder of the family, about sixty years old, observed a leopard coming near the cow every night where both had a fearless interaction. He doubted first day but was surprised to see their behaviour next day. When he narrated the event, no body believed his story. Subsequently, people witnessed an unnatural drama everyday.
The author was told about this story by the Range Forest Officer and Rohit Vyas but did not believe till he witnessed the drama on 17th October. The old man narrated interesting observation that every night the leopard would draw near to a particular cow, which has body colour similar to leopard, in an open field in the front of his house. The two animals would approach each other at very close proximity and seemed to all intents and purposes to be interacting, without any aggression on the part of the leopard, or fear on part of the cow.
The cat and its bovine friend ‘met’ and, exactly as the villagers had stated, seemed totally at ease with each other. There were two bulls and a buffalo calf in the field, which were pointedly ignored by the leopard but they were not at ease as the cow.
The story of the unlikely friendship spread like wildfire and people from other villages started coming to witness the phenomenon. The roof of a nearby pucca house was the best vantage point to witness the two strange friends. People said they could approach the two from a distance of less than 10 m, provided no camera flashes were set off. The wildlife lovers and photographers routinely began visiting the village, photographs were taken and the matter reported dutifully to forest officials.
A leading English daily even published the story on the front page, borrowing its headline from the title of a Hindi popular film, Ek chhoti si love story! (A small love story). But everyone was not quite comfortable with this situation. The elders in the village did not fear the cat, but worried that it might harm a child in the event of an encounter after dark. They did not want it harmed, but certainly wanted it taken away. People in Delhi also started asking their reporters about the news but full truth was never published, except in an article written by the author in the Sanctuary Asia magazine published from Mumbai. A team of a news channel passed a whole night to film the drama but the cat did not give any opportunity. The village became famous; people had no fear from the leopard. Several people, including the Chief Wildlife Warden, Pradeep Khanna visited the village and witnessed the strange behavior during this period; the Forest Department decided to trap it by arranging cages in the village.
Just when the story had attracted so much attention, the leopard disappeared for about a week. When it returned though, naturalists were on hand to document the relationship on film. Every night, normally between 9.30 p.m. and 11.00 p.m., the leopard would approach the cow from the surrounding fields. The cow would usually raise its ears before the cat’s arrival, seemingly detecting its presence from a distance. Village dogs too would bark to announce the leopard’s imminent arrival. And when it did arrive, the cat would first observe the surroundings from a distance, then move closer to the cow, rub the body with the cow and gently sit near it. At times it could be heard making a low gurgling sound that was difficult to describe, but certainly seemed submissive in nature. The two animals would often butt each other playfully with their heads. Once the cow seemed annoyed and actually pushed the leopard hard with its horns. At this the leopard merely moved closer and resumed its gurgling!
The cow would sometimes lick the cat on its head and neck. Indeed, to many observers, it seemed that the cow was behaving towards the leopard as she would towards her own calf. On occasion the leopard, its suspicious nature still on display, would find excitable humans, including photographers, uncomfortable and it would slink into the shelter of the fields. All night vigils revealed that five to six trips a night were normal and on one particular night she returned as many as a dozen times.
The author spent a few nights to enjoy these strange things happening there. One night, he reached Antoli at nine o’clock along with Rohit Vyas, Manoj Thaker, Tadvi (RFO) and other people. He fixed his camera in a hut where an old man slept. His chair in the hut was at about 10 metres away from the spot where the cow was sitting. The cow was young with a good height and reddish brown in color with a white belly. Barring black spots on the leopard, the color of the cow was not much different from the big cat. The author waited in the hut for over an hour and the old man started snoring while having a sound sleep. The man had observed the behaviour of the leopard for about two months time and knew every thing. He said before sleeping that the leopard normally comes at about 10 o’clock but some times earlier also. The electric supply went off when we occupied over position. After some time, there was some disturbance and we saw the leopard just sitting beside cow when torch was flashed. The leopard moved away in darkness. The light was flashed in the direction which was normally opted by the leopard for arrival. The author saw the big cat sitting on heap of paddy grass. Out of two bulls, one was tied between cow and paddy heap where leopard sat comfortably. The behaviour of the bull was different. It remained standing, attentive and breathing heavily looking at the leopard. The big cat just ignored the attentive action of the bull which kept on standing in a tense mood. For the bull, the leopard was unwanted and dangerous, although it was not as violent as a bull would normally become in the presence of a leopard. Perhaps, after observing behaviour of the two friends, the bull had less fear. The cow kept on sitting fearlessly; the leopard again came close to the cow, rubbed the body with her and sat beside it just like a calf normally sits close to her mother. The author came out from the hut and went on the roof to see both the drama. At night at about 2 O’ clock it was decided to return to Vadodara when the leopard disappeared in the darkness. In the next visit of the Chief Wildlife Warden, the events were photographed.
After a few days, the two photographers had developed a perfect understanding about the arrival of the leopard. Sensing the presence of human beings, sometimes a crowd of over three dozen, the cat coolly moved close to the cow. Many times they played with their heads and then sat close to each other. It is very difficult to explain the communication between them in words. The cow received the big cat like her calf that had come near the mother to get affection. The leopard sat close to the cow, sometimes joining her body and sometime below the mouth and neck of the cow. In most of the cases it was like a sub adult cat sitting with mother. Sometime, the leopard used foot to get cow in standing position. After passing some time, the animal used to disappear in the field in the darkness, perhaps due to the disturbance of the photographers but came back after some time. The relationship between the leopard and the cow grew which was never observed or reported in the past. Many time both played with their heads. The cow licked leopard several times, sometimes very heavily covering entire head and neck.
During the observation from November to January, the staff employed two cages at strategic locations with baits inside. Because of the strange behaviour of the leopard, goat, dog, puppy, hen and even meat were tried as baits but leopard did not enter the cage to kill the animals, although it inspected moving around the cages. The mission of capturing the leopard did not yield any result. It was finally decided to capture the animal using a tranquilizing gun but the animal stopped coming to the site before the plan was operationalized. In the meantime, I again visited the site with the Chief Wildlife Warden (CWW) on 2nd December and stayed there over the night to see the drama but the leopard did not visit the spot. One day before the visit, people of the village had a cultural programme with drums and songs at the site at night. Probably this event disturbed the leopard as visits were not regular after the disturbance. I observed the behaviour closely again with the CWW on 31st January. On 20th December the leopard injured a goat in the cage from outside. In December and January, people reported that plenty of puppies disappeared at regular intervals from villages as winter was a season for abundant new born dog pups. God knows, it might be a harvest season for our leopard.
With observers now almost permanently positioned, we came to learn that the leopard visited the cow continuously from October 8 to 22 and then from November 4 to 29. For some reason, between November 30 and December 29, the leopard stayed away. But it was seen in the vicinity. Then in the third week of January, the leopard seemed to vanish but visited again in the last week of February and stayed with the cow till early morning. Attempts to capture it in November and December proved futile, the wary animal steadfastly refusing to enter cages set out with baits, though it once tried to kill a goat from outside the cage. After over a week of regular visit, the cat again disappeared in February but returned for one or two days in first week of March. Reports from villagers indicate that the animal also visited neighbouring villages to procure food, mainly dogs.
Nature lovers maintained contact with the villagers to collect fresh information. But the leopard did not return to the cow for reasons not known to anybody. Few months passed but nothing was heard, except indirect evidences of the leopard visiting the village occasionally. People believed that two leopards occasionally visited the village in 2004 but it was difficult to say whether one of them was the same leopard. Once a leopard killed a cow in the village and ate partly. Perhaps it had become a mature large cat and got a mate somewhere, but nothing could be confirmed.
So what is this all about? How come a predator and prey behaved in this incredible way? There have been many varying interpretations for the strange behavior. Some suggest the female leopard captured in August was the mother of the sub-adult female we had observed, though from the photographs, she does seem fully grown.
We know least about the habit and behaviour of these animals; even we are not fully aware about some of the mysterious behaviour of human beings. I could not understand why the leopard regularly met the cow and behaved in a manner which was not believed by people. It was more surprising to me that why a cow accepted its enemy and loved like she loved her calves. The author believes the young leopard may have been affected by the absence of its own and somehow detected some maternal qualities in the cow, which would have reassured her and helped her cope without her own mother.
P.M. Lad, ex Chief Wildlife Warden of Madhya Pradesh, who had spent his entire life with tigers and leopards, was surprised to know the fact. His wife had kept a tiger cub at her residence which became an adult from there. Lad again explained the view of his wife that the cow was probably imprinted on the young leopard at a very early age, prior to its hunting instincts having emerged and matured. This may have led to the unusual relationship, since the cow too perceived no threat at all. It is likely that the cow had never encountered a leopard before and did not therefore ‘know’ that the two were meant to be sworn enemies.
No one will ever perhaps be able to state with confidence, just what the truth was, but it is clear that the behaviour of both cow and leopard was strange and downright unbelievable. And then of course this is India! People more knowledgeable than forest officers and field biologists insist that the two animals had shared a close relationship in their previous births. Some priests hinted at a supernatural relationship. But nature is not telling us anything. Nature is full of surprises; there may be some missing link and we know little about it. Who knows about the truth? But such an unbelievable and unprecedented event was worth while to mention in this article/blog for future benefits of the people.