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   Prashanto Banerji - Features Editor - The Sunday Indian
Prashanto Banerji
Features Editor - The Sunday Indian
[01 July 2007]

I Loved it to death

Sariska was disappointing. The tigers had long gone and seemed to have taken the magic away with them. It was mid-May and the white heat of summer had choked us dry. We were looking forward to the setting sun and the cool confines of the hotel. I had never felt so depressed in these gorges before. The forest seemed to be in mourning. The plaintive call of the peafowl filled the desolate valley with a strange melancholy as we exited. It was dusk and indeed, the sun seemed to have gone down on Sariska.

The Sariska Palace, once the hunting lodge of Maharaja Jai Singh, and now an upscale resort, that was once popular with foreign tourists and the well heeled from Delhi, now wore a deserted look. After an early supper, under a sky that had come alive with stars, I walked toward the park gates. Under the cover of darkness, Sariska pretended to recapture some of its old mystery. Two forest guards were sitting on a string cot, doubtless talking of better days when I approached them. “Nahar(Tiger) dhoond rahe ho babu? Nahar nahi raha!”. They seemed to be talking of not just an animal, but an era that passed, and left them behind to lament. But I was not there to talk about the tiger. I was there because it is said that while in the forests where the tiger rules, the leopard is quiet, secretive, almost invisible. But in a forest without tigers, the leopard stalks without fear, and it was the leopard that I was after.
“Tendua (Leopard) yahan nahin hain,” he said but if I went east for a few kilometers to a place called Taal Vriksh, I could perhaps see leopards there. I rushed back to the palace, woke up my friends and drove as fast as I could toward Taal Vriksh. Taal vriksh was a tiny hamlet outside the precincts of the park, surrounded by scrub forests. In the dead of night, the village looked deserted. Not a soul stirred. Some distance away, a lone fire was burning inside a small temple. We asked the priest if leopards really came calling. The priest came out and told us that without the fire, the leopard would take both him and the temple cow away. He took us to the courtyard and showed us the pug marks of a large female leopard imprinted on the thin layer of dust that had gathered on the cemented yard. He said that if we wanted to see leopards we should go to Singhji’s farm, a kilometre toward the forest. At the gates of Singhji’s farm, large dogs rushed at us, as we waited inside the car for someone to come to our rescue. A burly individual with a handlebar moustache and an uncharacteristically squeaky voice asked of us what we wanted. He told us that for the price of a chicken, he could show us a leopard and for the price of a goat he had shown film crews sightings long enough to film a sequence. Sariska seemed to hold promise yet.

But there was a glitch. Singhji was going to bait the leopard with a live chicken or goat and being a near vegetarian by choice, the idea of sacrificing a life for momentary joy seemed unfair. More significantly, the idea of baiting wild animals, even for tourists, has been condemned by experts because it modifies wild behaviour and threatens the animal in the long run. But the thought of seeing as magnificent and elusive an animal like the leopard mere metres from us was too tempting to pass up. So Singhji brought a doomed broiler out from its coop and with his dogs and a guard walked toward a clearing at the edge of the forest and tied it with a string to a bush. Then he walked back and turned on a powerful hand held search-light. The forest was quite and in the glare of the light, the chicken fluttered and clucked. Suddenly, a Sambhar barked a warning and then as we held our breath, a soundless spotted blur streaked into the field of light, plucked the poor bird, and in a whirl of feathers and muffled cries, disappeared. In that breathless moment was encapsulated one of my greatest wildlife experiences. The debate over ethics and morality was forgotten and after paying our dues, we headed back, flushed with a memory and a story to last a lifetime.

Months later, I was returning from Jaipur with a guest and thought that an evening with Singhji and the leopard would be a nice way to round off my guest’s Rajasthan experience. So we took the diversion from the highway to Delhi and set off for Taal Vriksh. The little village was as quiet as before. We passed the temple, but curiously, the fire seemed to have died out. At Singhji’s farm, there were no dogs, and the gate was open. We walked in, calling out for Singhji but there was no response. The farm was deserted. Disappointed we headed back, but stopped at the temple to ask the priest. “After you left, not many came Babu, and the leopard was going hungry. It had come to expect food every week and when it did not find any, it entered the village and carried the luhar’s (blacksmith) daughter away. The whole village woke up to the child’s cries, and gave chase but to no avail. Two nights later, the animal was baited and poisoned by the villagers. It was a female with cubs. The villagers drove Singhji away. You and your likes came here for an hour’s pleasure and left behind a house empty of the pitter -patter of a child’s feet, a dead leopard that didn’t know any better and two cubs that starved and died a horrible, painful death”

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