Courting leopards chased by wild dogs in central India
Just as the sun was rising over the jagged edges of the silhouetted Satpura mountain range, we crossed the tranquil golden waters of the Tawa reservoir in an old fibreglass boat. On the other bank, we could make out the large figure of Priya the elephant, and Maniram, the mahout- her guardian.
The sun rises over the jagged edges of the Satpura mountain range
We were entering the forest in search of biodiversity with a couple of tourists from France; this activity also doubles up as a patrol- helping the forest department keep an eye on the how the individual animals are faring and where they are found whilst simultaneously checking for trespassers. Maniram opted to take the roundabout route to reech pahadi (literally translating into 'bear hill') via dense satinwood forest, cutting through a fire-line en route- this was one of the most biodiversity-rich parts of the jungle. We stopped every few hundred metres to listen to the sounds of the forest, when we heard the distant call of a langur from more than a kilometre away. Our ears pricked up. Positive that it was an alarm call, that is, the sound a prey makes in response to seeing/hearing/smelling a predator, we proceeded in that direction.
Balanced precariously on a branch
By this time we reached the spot, the forest had gone berserk with the high-pitched cries of chital, the barks and hisses of the langur, the whining, yelping squeaks of the rhesus macaque, the continuous, maniacal chirps of the Malabar giant squirrel, the evenly-spaced, petrified crowing of the grey junglefowl and the reverberating honks and stamping of feet of the sambar. And there it was; a magnificent male leopard! Unperturbed by the cacophony, he walked straight towards the sambar, continuously giving the leopard mating call, also called 'sawing' after the raspy in-and-out tune. Despite the leopard knowing that the entire forest, sambar included, were aware of his presence, he made a fast canter towards the deer almost as if he wanted to reiterate that predators reign supreme. The sambar, startled by this unconventional behaviour, immediately leaped through the undergrowth making for the protection of the scrubby Lantana.
The male leopard in the tree
The leopard kept flitting in and out of our view due to the large teak trees and dense brown straw dotting the ground. Suddenly, we heard a few langur calls followed by the chirps of Malabar giant squirrels from the other side, to our left. Curious, we turned our focus, and heard the unmistakable guttural call of a leopard, no more than five metres from us and a one-leap distance away. Had we stumbled upon a breeding pair? We couldn't see the second leopard and the original male kept darting in and out of view. Could the day get any more exciting?
Apparently, it could, since yet another set of calls came from right behind us! Was it another male vying for the female or was it a cub? We didn't have to wait too long to guess because as the calls got nearer and more pronounced, we recognized them as the eerie whistling of wild dogs. Were we in for an intense fight between two of the most feared predators of the jungle? Wild dogs, though not as large as other predators are capable of taking down prey much larger than themselves, their modus operandi being to surround their quarry and take turns to bite it.
Wild dogs frolicking
The tension in the atmosphere was palpable. Within a few seconds, we heard the sound of something hurtling through the grass along the narrow, dusty game-trail. As our fingers trembled with excitement, a full grown leopardess came crashing through the undergrowth, hotly pursued by five dholes! The leopard galloped ahead, towards the male, tantalizingly out of reach of the dogs! Whether she had received a nip from the dogs was uncertain but there was no doubt as to who was chasing whom. The leopard was fleeing with the proverbial tail tucked between its legs!
We also spotted the male, who just a few minutes ago had walked confidently and fearlessly toward the sambar, desperately seeking refuge from the wild dogs! It probably struck him then to take to a tree and he desperately scrambled up one, not looking down until he had reached the upper branches that bent under his weight, threatening to snap and drop him to the eager, snapping jaws of the yelping dogs below. Despite him snarling and baring his canines, there seemed to be no diminution in the ferocity and determination of the dholes. Meanwhile, the other leopard, the female, received some respite from the dogs by climbing into the safe arms of a crocodile-bark tree. In a few minutes the dogs, having cornered their arch-rivals, moved away, perhaps seeking to expend their energy on another target. It had been the sambar's lucky day too saved from one predator by another!
Both the large carnivores taking refuge in the trees after being chased up by the wild dogs!
Sensing that the leopards needed their space to recuperate from this unexpected chase, we decided to leave and returned to our camp, hearts still in our mouths.