Sometime in January 2014, in the middle of the night, I saw three six-month-old leopard cubs playfully jump around. Just a few moments later, oblivious to our camera traps, their mother walked past them, leaving us with unintentionally graceful poses.
Several animals hide amidst Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary’s woodland savannah habitat, covered with gregarious old Indian Blackwood trees (Hardwickia binata). This background acts as the perfect camouflage for wild species; however, the many automatically triggered cameras we placed within the sanctuary helped us observe animals without the challenges posed by the camouflage. Looking at the captured photographs of those three leopard cubs, I couldn’t help but wonder what the future held for them – a question that has many factors impacting the answer.
We know all the answers when it comes to tigers: when does a tiger cub wean off from its mother? How big is a tiger’s home range? How many tigers are there? But replace ‘tigers’ with ‘leopards’, and the answers become scanty. Most often, we tend to draw parallels with the leopard’s co-predator—the tiger—and give answers similar to that for the striped cat. This lack of answers is what inspired my research on leopards, and why I was enchanted by the cubs our camera trap had captured.
I wanted to understand the leopard population. How are their numbers distributed? What are these numbers? These, and various other insights that needed to be looked at, studied and understood. For example, did you know that the rosettes on leopards’ bodies help us understand some aspects of their life, as similar natural markings have for many other wildlife species? Whales, dolphins, giraffes, zebras, tigers, hyenas, lizards and many more have been studied in a similar fashion; it was also an old technique initially used to understand fish numbers, in the USA. Studying leopards is important because they symbolise the conservation challenges associated with a species that is spread beyond the safer boundaries of protected areas.
After those recordings in January 2014, we returned to Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary in January 2016, to continue our population estimation work. Once the field exercise—which normally takes 3-4 months—was completed, data curation and analysis took a similar amount of time. We also started comparing our current data with that from 2014, and to our joy, deduced that all the three young cubs that had ramp-walked in front of our camera traps had survived to adulthood!
One of the female cubs, CU-74, had moved west and had reached the Dhanagur area of the wildlife sanctuary. She had to cross River Shimsha to reach her current location, and I wonder how and why she traversed the deep ravines of the Shimsha. Perhaps there was too much competition for space in the interior of the forest, and hence she moved to the forest’s edge. We started referring to CU-74 as Shimsha, named after the river she had bravely crossed.
The second female cub had moved in the opposite direction of Shimsha and reached the Hyra and Galibore areas of the forest. She hung around the banks of River Cauvery, so we named her Kaveri, though we called her CU-68 in our records.
Finally, we found the third cub as an adult, and our joy knew no bounds! Although we hadn’t been able to identify its gender when it was a young cub, we now knew that he was a male. The male had surprisingly defied the boundaries of his parents, and very interestingly, crossed the River Cauvery and walked south to reach the forests adjoining Mathipura in Kollegala Taluk. The young, cuddly cub had now become a strong, well-built adult. His shimmering coat enhanced his handsomeness. He must have crossed the Cauvery by bounding on the river’s large boulders during summer, when the water level tends to be low. He had established his home range 20 kms away from his natal area, and we called him Muthatti, though he continues to be CU-19 in our database. Muthatti proved that natural barriers like rivers did not obstruct his dispersal.
Leopard young ones wean away from their mothers at the age of one to one-and-a-half years, to set up their own worlds. At times, male cubs may depend upon their mothers a bit longer, perhaps as in the human world. In two years, all the cubs had grown up and moved away from their mother’s range to establish themselves. From a scientific perspective, moving away from their siblings was also a critical issue. If they had established their home range close to their siblings’, the risk of inbreeding would increase, leading to genetic disorders.
I don’t know whether CU-12, their mother, is alive today. But she has enormously contributed to the conservation of the leopard population in Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary by tenderly bringing up her cubs. She has protected her three cubs against all odds in the forest, fed the demanding young ones, helped them grow, and finally saw them off to further the cause of her species.
It’s not an easy task for a mother to support three cubs to adulthood. She has to hunt suitable prey depending on their growth. When the cubs are very young, she has to protect them against pythons, forest fires, and other threats. Until they are independent, she has to safeguard them against other male leopards. So, this mother must have tussled and battled to bring up her litter. She must have used all her skills: speed, stealth, disguise, and bravery.
Females such as CU-12 play a decisive role in the animal world. If they are reproducing and bringing up more young ones to adulthood, it is a sign that these forests are providing her with good safety and food. Hope her tribe increases.