Urban-raised and office-bred, I have a wanderlust lurking in my soul for the Great Indian Wild. And have long been waiting for that hair-raising, breath-stopping encounter with a wild cat in its natural habitat. I imagine myself standing hypnotized by its yellow eyes-but preferably, not too hypnotized-since getting a good enough click is vital-if only, as proof.
I am still waiting.
A few years back, a brilliant photographer friend and I were pushing first gear along a meandering stony road in the middle of the Bandipur forest-hopelessly lost-when we spotted a leopard in the tall grass alongside the car window. Beautiful and sleek, it crouched, staring at us and gauging whether our intentions were honourable or not. A heaven-sent opportunity, complete with a brilliant photographer, I ecstatically assumed this was my Aha moment. The photograph-finally! But as he raised his camera with the long zoom lens, the leopard uncoiled itself and charged. At us! In the panic of getting away, all we captured on film was a blur of tawny gold with black spot-rather like a muddy windscreen, in fact. And definitely not admissible as proof.
The next chance I’d had was at Wyanad-on dark trails through mountain trees that let in no sunlight at all. Our guide helpfully pointed out that a leopard had just passed-see the spoor-see the claw scratches on the tree-see the pug marks. I collected many pictures of leopard spoor, scratches and pug marks-just no picture of the leopard.
Finally, I had my break a month or two back. On a safari from The Serai Kabini, the other jeeps hooted at us-There’s a leopard to be seen out there! So, in a frantic scramble of excited tourists and rustling leaves and screeching jeeps-and even a coach that got stuck in the mud-we reached the spot.
The leopard was not to be seen. ‘It’s behind those bushes,’ whispered the guide. ‘That master of camouflage!’
Almost a hundred tourists sat silently (and as we all know- that’s an arduous task for tourists) - for over half an hour waiting for the wild cat to stretch itself out of the bush and grant us a view. We sat, barely breathing, all cameras poised.
And then it made its move. A deer gambolled by, and the leopard streaked after it. The deer sped off with the leopard behind. Cameras clicked furiously-so did mine.
I am now the proud owner of the photograph of a real wild cat in the wild. All right, of its tail. A golden tail shooting out of the frame of my picture. But hey-it’s a leopard. A body part of a leopard. That’s proof. Of my eventual close (but not too close) encounter of the spotted kind.
-Jane De Suza
Former Creative Director-JWT