This winter looks like a season of cats for me. Big cats. Now that I've settled in the Pench National Park and doing safaris more often, it is getting real interesting. Here, sightings of large predator the Tiger is not as common as in Bandhavgarh or in Kanha but there are good densities of wild dogs and the elusive, adaptable, little big cat - the leopard!
Leopards are the most successful of big cats. One of the reasons is that they are shy and secretive. That helps, especially in places where its bigger cousin, the Tiger, reigns supreme and also where ever it is close to human settlements. They are not easy to see and you always get fleeting glimpse or hear that unforgettable sawing call.
An early morning, a few weeks ago, we were driving in an area called ‘Jodamunara’. While driving in this area, the eye wouldn’t miss the huge black rocks and boulders which are all over the place. The road winds like a snake with ups and downs since it's a hilly terrain. I was keeping an eye on rocks, as my first sighting of a leopard in Pench happened just there late last year. We came to a turning, when suddenly our guide shouted leopard!Less than a hundred meters ahead I saw one leopard jump off from a small boulder which was on the roadside. Then we saw another and that was still on the same rock. Two leopards!! WOW! I immediately asked the car to be stop. Himanshu, my colleague, who was driving stopped the vehicle and I asked him not to move till they are comfortable by our presence. The one that jumped was much smaller compared to the one that was on the rock and with quick look through binoculars we conformed smaller one was female and big one was a male. A courting pair!
The female was very young compared to male. We think that this might be her first courting. She was shy as she hid behind a tree. The male looked old and had bad wounds on his face and chest. There was fresh blood on his face. The wound was probably caused by the female, as leopards, and all big cats in general, tend to be aggressive while mating. Poor old guy had been clawed on his
face by the desperate young female. Seth, the Head Ranger from CCAfrica Phinda of South Africa, who was with us for five weeks to train us was with me. Looking at the swollen face of the leopard, we came to this conclusion: When female is in estrus, she advertises by sawing. Sawing is a way where leopards call for marking territory or for mating. It is fairly loud, similar to the sound of a saw cutting wood but difficult to explain in writing! This sawing along with the scent marking of the female would have attracted another male from different territory. And it was quite possible that both the males would have fought during the previous night.And when the male leopard jumped off the rock in the end we actually saw him limping. So, it must have been a fight with another male and few on the face may be courting fight with the female.
Anyway, we slowly approached the couple to get a good look at them. The male was not at all bothered by us but the female looked nervous. I had a little knowledge of leopards, but Seth has amazing experience with them since he does specialist safaris there which deal with tracking leopards! We knew the female would come back eventually. We waited there patiently and now we were less than twenty meters from the leopards.
The female who was moving around was now getting a little comfortable she came into our full view making loud purr.
She came much closer without taking the eyes off us and then right under the rock. The male hardly reacted to her.
Then she jumped on the rock going back and forth around the male, who was basking his face to sun where he was bleeding.
She then started snarling at him... and in few seconds she made her move for the obvious the position.( The courting leopards! my fav shot!)
Then they mated.
A few seconds later it was over.
Both jumped off the rock and we could see the male limping as he went behind rock sat into the grass.
We waited for few minutes and the female came back purring again. The male got up and followed her into the small valley behind the rocks. As they moved we heard chital alarm calls from the valley. They may mate for few more days, after that both will go separate ways though she will be in his territory, for he gives protection for the cubs. So if i am luckier than this i may see the cubs too in few months time!
This was Seth's, mine and most of the others' best leopard sighting ever.