Amazing experiance about Leopard Census at Jambughoda

To begin with, it’s a matter of pride to be invited by the Forest Department, Baroda to participate in the Leopard census around the Jambughoda Range roughly 80 Kms from Baroda city. I reached ‘Kada Dam’ forest bungalow at 4.30 pm on the 26th May. Mr. Vadasola, forest officer, who was expecting me later introduced to the D.F.O. Mr. Tipre there and I was then immediately placed at a ‘point’ at ‘Vav’ village of Jambughoda. I rode 10 Kms back to Vav where I was received by resident forest ranger Mr. S.G. Patel. Following my evening prayers and a refreshing cup of tea, we rode towards the ‘point’ in fading daylight which was 3 Kms from Vav into dense forest with high hills all around. At about 7.45 pm we reached our ‘point’ where I met two local men, Ranchod & Kanchan on a ‘machan’ (machdo in gujarati) which they built for us. The machan was about 15 feet from the base of a ‘Neem’ tree on a small hill. It was platform made of thick branches of Neem tree, roughly 10 feet long, fastened with coir ropes and huge round ‘Khakra’ tree leaves of this deciduous forest were spread on the platform so as to make it comfortable for about 3 people to sit. A 15 feet sturdy branch of Neem tree was vertically fastened to the platform and niches were carved on its sides alternately so as to be used as a ladder to climb into the machan. I noticed a check-dam tank about 12 meters from the base of the tree, down the hill. The tank was at length in a 20 feet wide dry canal, 5 feet broad and was filled with water meant to quench the thirst of the wild animals in the scorching summer heat. I was told that there were 5 such tanks in the area and we were to keep vigil on this particular one all night long. On climbing into the machan, I was overwhelmed to see the panoramic picturesque view around me. It was almost a full moon and shimmering bright moonlight added to both, our vision and the beauty of the thick forest outgrowth full of the tall Neem, Khakra, Timru & Mahuda trees on the slopes of the high hills surrounding us on all sides. Despite adding up to our comfort the heavy breeze swayed the tall trees and made scary noises as the tree trunks creaked, the green leaves whistled and dry leaves blew themselves down the hills and the forest floor. Time and again I could listen to the movement of the trees from far and the sound would get louder as the breeze approached us and again fade as it would continue on its directional flow away from us, a unique acoustic experience that I never had before. The background was filled with shrill whistles of a small tree top dwelling bird called ‘Tahudi’ by the locals. I poked my utility knife in the tree trunk and kept my camera and binoculars within my reach as we whispered to each other, so as not to be noticed by the leopard and discourage it from coming to the water tank as leopards are solitary and skeptical of any movements or sounds that they are not used to seeing or listening. It was then when we were suddenly hushed to silence by Kanchan, the local, as he drew our attention to a roaring sound of a leopard at a distance from the North, uphill. We froze and starred at the direction of the noise. The five minute pandemonium broke when we heard the roars again, this time louder advocating the slow approach of the beast towards us. This was followed by a faint leopard roar from the South this time. After 20 minutes of optimism we heard a ‘langur’ monkey call out loudly from a nearby tree. This was an ‘alarm call’ that the big cat had arrived and was within a visible distance and the adrenalin was pumping in my body. We are hushed to silence again, this time by Ranchod, who to my surprise stood on a lower branch of the neem tree easily within the reach of the leopard, but surprisingly did not seem to care. Both the locals and the ranger saw it as it approached, but it took some time for me to sight it as the tall trees filtered the bright moonlight and this big cat is a master camouflage. I just happened to see this amazing animal in the wild and feeling was too good to be expressed. This incident occurred at 9.20 pm late in the evening, followed by the entry of the forest office jeep to distribute food packets for the census staff and this scared the beautiful animal as it speeded off Southwards and brought a premature end to the amazing feeling that I was enjoying. This was followed by a lot of wild roaring, chirping and squeaking all through the night. The most unforgettable part of the day was that late in the night at around 1.00 am the two local men who accompanied us decided that they needed some sleep and to my worst nightmare they decided to walk about 20 meters away from the tree and take a nap on a mere 3 feet high parapet wall that divided two farmlands. I was witnessing this unbelievable act of bravado, myself being too overwhelmed by the dangers of the wild. Shocked and flabbergasted, I was watching these men walk on the forest floor in the middle of the night with wild animals as ferocious as leopards loitering around in the vicinity, and with such ease they dozed off on the parapet partition with their axe and sickles besides them. I could not get any sleep through the night as curiosity did not let the adrenalin rush die down in my body. Keeping a tight vigil around me I was listening to the scary noises of various animals, birds and insects in the vicinity. At about 5.30 am daylight broke in and yet again I was blessed to enjoy the beauty of early morning sunrise from behind the hills. In about 20 minutes Mother Nature showed this amazing transition of night into day as darkness gave way to light. It’s funny how daylight can make a timid person bold while the same person in the dark can be skeptical of the very same surroundings. We climbed down the machan and begin to look for the ‘pug marks’ of the leopards. We found the ‘pug marks’ of three different leopards including a female, all varying in sizes. Selecting the best 5 ‘pug marks we decided to take the ‘plaster casts’. I was again surprised how easily the locals can do without any gadgets or appliances. Kanchan demonstrated his pragmatic approach to life as he made a dirt wall around the selected ‘pug marks’ and then mixed up the plaster power with water in a ‘khakra’ leaf. He then poured the mixture into the encircled area of the ‘pug marks’. Presto, in about half an hour we had the casts ready with the visible pug marks. Probably, I did not learn as much collectively in my life before this thrilling experience as what I learned, experienced and understood in that one single night. Smiling to myself I realized that the absorbing power of an ordinary human is more than what he reckons. Reading Jim Corbett, F.W. Champion, Stanley Jepson & Salim Ali all through my life I now begin to wonder how difficult it was for them as they gave up their entire lives in the wild sitting up on such machans for a cause. Locals from the jungle demonstrated that they can do without gadgets or what we call basic necessities of life. They can avail oil, fuel & wine form the same Mahuda tree and can smoke beedi by rolling up some tobacco in a Timru leaf. I was left feeling like a fool when I was calculating the chances of a leopard climbing into the machan while the locals dozed off on the forest floor with a leaopard about 30 feet from them.