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The Story of Dream the Leopard Cub and Kaziranga in a Flood

by Pralay Lahiry | June 30, 2016

Copyright Praylay LahiryThe little fur ball climbed up my chest and snatched away my heart.

My friend Gautam got a call from the Forest Service that a leopard cub had been found in the tea gardens off Margherita, Upper Assam in India and needed to be released. Since he worked with the wildlife in Kaziranga, his advice and presence would be of help. The cub was found by one of the locals inside the garden and picked up and handed over to the Forest Service. Since the Ranger was out of station nobody knew what to do. At this point three days had passed and we were losing time with each passing day. As a species, we humans are so obnoxious that even a mother leopard may not accept the return of her baby if there is a detectable human imprint. We decided to try our luck that evening.

Dream the leopard cub

Dream the leopard cub.

Our plan was to take the cub to the location where she was found and try looking for pug marks or some other indications of the mother’s presence and leave her there while watching from a safe distance inside our Gypsy all night if required. We hoped that the cub’s cries would attract the mother and they would reunite. In the event the cub was rejected we would bring her back. We had yet to see the cub.

Dream in my arms while trying to release her

Dream in my arms while trying to release her.

Gautam, Mr. Deka the forest guard, and I drove down to the town of Magherita that afternoon and alighted at the ranger’s office. We thought that the cub would be housed in a cage away from prying eyes. Instead, an assistant came up holding a cardboard box. From it peered a soulful pair of blue eyes with a face that might have melted the heart of Hannibal and was named Dream. The cub was hardly two months old and she clambered up my arms, purring like a tabby. She was not even weaned and was being fed with milk from a bottle. There was no way we could abandon her in the wild without her mother.

We set out immediately accompanied by two men of the Forest Service who knew the area. When we reached the location, we were presented with further problems. The tea garden was flanked on two sides by dense jungle and the furrows were so deep that if we lost the cub it would be impossible to get her back in the gathering gloom. Then it started drizzling.

The cub was put down on the ground and immediately she started calling and tried to disappear inside the tea plants. We collected her and went down the middle of the plantation. Have you ever tried to release a leopard cub in a tea garden in the midst of a jungle during a drizzle, while wearing bathroom slippers and carrying a DSLR—where the chances of stumbling upon an angry mother leopard are quite high? Do not try it.

At one point we got the scent of the leopard quite strongly but by that time the dusk was gathering and the risk was too high. Still, we set the cub down but it immediately vanished inside the tea plants and was found more by luck than by tracking skills. We realized that this was almost a futile effort since we could not get the gypsy so far inside and leaving the cub to its fate would most likely get it killed, either by other leopards, a snake, or by the elephants which pass by regularly. Standing guard on the ground the whole night would put all of us at high risk.

We searched for a safer location to set Dream down but soon it was dark and there was not a spot in sight where she would be out of harm’s way. The search was abandoned and we carried her back to the ranger’s house. On that night the floods of Assam set in and after that there was no point in looking for the mother.

Dream and I at her foster home

Dream and I at her foster home.

Before leaving I paid one more visit just to hold Dream in my arms and promise her that her story will be told even if nobody listens. Those trusting eyes will probably not see her mother again. The Forest Separtment did not know what to do with her. The zoos were not willing take her in for lack of space. There was no plan of action in place in a state where they are found in one of the highest numbers. They do not even have a cage for such a contingency and none of the famous NGOs have considered doing something about it. There is no awareness campaign to educate people living around the forests that leopards or other wildlife are not to be touched let alone picked up unless wounded, in which case the Forest Service is to be notified. Setting Dream free would have been akin to murdering her. She was nobody’s child. The Forest Service was caring for her at that moment, but nobody knew what the long-term solution would be. Dream did not belong to a place where people would hold candlelight vigils and put up posters for her survival. I, too, could not do anything for her except tell her story and I am ashamed for that.

Those eyes and that purring call will haunt me forever when Dream calls out and finds that her calls have no ears listening. In a far-flung corner of India in a half-forgotten place, a little fur ball was searching for her mother. I only hoped my Dream would live; she would be in my heart until it stops beating. After I left and came back home, Gautam called me to let me know that Guwahati Zoo had finally accepted her. She would live her life behind bars—alone—looking at gawking visitors who would poke fun at her from the safety beyond the without anybody knowing her story. At least Dream will live and that was more than I could hope for when I left her.

***

It all started with a phone call from Gautam while I was fast asleep one Sunday afternoon.

“Come fast! The floods have started in Kaziranga.”

That is what I had wished to see for a long time. My association with Gautam and Kaziranaga goes back quite a few years, but I had yet to see Kazi during the floods. Every time the floods started, I was held up due to some reason or another, but this time there was no stopping me. I boarded the Kamrup Express the next day and headed for Furkating, the nearest railhead for Kazi.

When I alighted at 1:00 AM, Gautam and my old trusted driver Bubul were waiting for me. It was suggested that we travel up and down the National Highway bordering Kaziranaga and that we did. From 1:00-4:00 AM we travelled up and down the highway and spotted a herd of wild buffalo, along with the usual hog deer, and spent the next few hours at Gautam’s house snoring away.

Flooded fields on the way to Kaziranga

Flooded fields on the way to Kaziranga.

That morning we traveled to Gautam’s camp and this time I did not get to experience my usual roller coaster ride over the fallow fields bordering the Dhanseri river because there were no fields—everything was under water and we travelled by boat over the same place where I usually travel by Gypsy.

Mishing tribal huts on the way to Kaziranga

Mishing tribal huts on the way to Kaziranga.

Since Kaziranga was closed, I usually spent my days with the camp workers, collecting driftwood on the Brahmaputra. That is when we met a soft shell turtle on one of the river islands, which was the size of a medium dining table. Rambabu was carrying almost half a dead tree on his incredibly strong shoulders in waist-deep mud back to the boat when the turtle showed itself by moving. It was truly a magnificent species but had an injury mark near its neck, requring closer inspection so we turned it on its back which is easier said than done! As the workers tried to close in, the turtle struck at incredible speed with open jaws that could do a lot of damage. Evading those jaws in the waist-deep, slimy mud with a camera in hand was not the easiest of jobs, but the rest of the party was having a tough time trying to turn it over. The turtle tried to haul herself over the mud and disappear into the river. Rambabu, in a final desperate attempt, got on her shell and I had the incredible opportunity of observing a man riding a turtle. Rambabu latched on and was dragged for about a meter and a half before a flick of the turtle’s shoulders threw him squarely into the mud. However, those few seconds had given enough time for the rest of the team to catch and turn her over. The whole incident was so jaw-dropping that by the time I managed to bring my jaws back in place, Ramababu was up and we were inspecting the injury. It turned out to be a superficial one and she was put back on her feet, gracefully reaching the swirling waters and disappearing into the Brahmaputra.

Soft-shell turtle in Kaziranga

Soft-shell turtle in Kaziranga.

When the clouds cleared in the evenings, I would sit alone on the watch tower overlooking the forest and the flooded Brahmaputra, watching the clouds chase each other over the Eastern Himalayas across the river. Some nights I would sit alone on the terrace. The workers left and Ramababu would retire to his village after making me a flask of tea and dinner. On a clear full moon night, the moon would rise over the dark waters flooding the undulating grass. Elephants would emerge from the tree line as the night wore on and graze under the tower. A rhino mother would emerge with her baby in tow, catch the scent of a feline in the warm breeze, and hurry back into the safety of the swamps. The stars would twinkle and I would watch the spectacle, a hot cup of tea in hand, as contended as a man could ever be.

Kaziranga from Brahmaputra River in flood

Kaziranga from Brahmaputra River in flood.

Then we got an invitation from the DFO Mr. R.K. Das of Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. Gautam and I drove down to Digboi town and on to Mr. Das’ residence. When we reached in the afternoon, a pair of oriental pied hornbills sat on the coconut tree outside his office and welcomed us with their loud calls. As we sipped our tea, clouds started gathering and it started to rain. A drive into the forest in the late afternoon was rewarded with a herd of elephants bathing in the dense rainforest; a different setting from any of my previous sightings of the gentle giants.

Four days in Dehing Patkai and it rained like Niagara. There was hardly any let up from the pouring water. Exploring a rainforest during a rainstorm has its own charm especially when the clouds kiss the towering trees and the rain seeps to every pore of your body and soul. When the puniest stream takes on the form of a raging torrent; when the air you breathe in tastes of moss and lichens; when in the pitch darkness you listen to the drumming of the water drops on the roof of your vehicle as you feel the presence of life all around you without seeing them; when you feel that you have lived life to the fullest.

Then you meet Dream and realize that there is so much more to life.

Elephant herd bathing in forest stream in Dihing Patkai

Elephant herd bathing in forest stream in Dihing Patkai.

The above article was published in Touriosity Travel Magazine Volume 4, March 2016 in Kolkata, India.

About the Author

Staying with 30 cows and a bull in a stable inside a jungle with a shepherd while photographing bird migration to the subcontinent. Getting pneumonia while trying to shoot red pandas in the Himalayas unsuccessfully. Holding onto a branch for dear life while a wild buffalo tries to get intimate with me. That is I, Pralay Lahiry, nature and wildlife lover, and photographer and madness lover. I love to get to the grassroots of conservation by making funds available through wildlife tours to the local people who make conservation actually work. Visit my website at: www.mywildindia.com and my Facebook page.

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