It was Amol’s idea and it took Philip and me less than a second to endorse it. One Saturday evening in late 2003, Philip Fernandes and I drove down from Ponda to the Bhagwan Mahavir wildlife sanctuary in his blue Mahindra jeep. Philip sold the jeep last month and bought a new one. On arriving at the sanctuary we met Amol Naik at the Range Forest Officer’s (RFO) office. Amol volunteered at the wildlife sanctuary when he found time off from work as a gym trainer. Eventually, talk turned to leopard sightings as it usually happens in such settings. “Lets wait out the leopard on the machan (observation post),” Amol suggested. “Maybe we’ll get to see one if we stay the night out in the jungle.” Philip and I nodded in approval. It was an exciting prospect and we couldn’t wait for nightfall.
On the treks that Philip and I went together over the years we came across several instances of leopard droppings and pug marks on jungle trails but never came face to face with the big cat. However I remember one instance in early 2003 when we came very, very close to facing up with a leopard. Philip and I had driven down to the sanctuary from Curtorim where I had stayed the night before at his prawn farm. The Columbia crash that killed Kalpana Chawla and her crew dominated the local papers that day. On reaching the wildlife sanctuary, we walked in the direction of Caranzol, and it was at the edge of a grass plot developed as a grazing ground for bisons that we almost faced up with the leopard. We were drawn to the far corner of the plot by a series of staccato langur-calls. “Anil, these are alarm calls,” Philip said. “I saw monkeys in Gir use these calls to alert the rest of the troupe on seeing a lion.” Philip had returned recently from the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat. “Yeah,” I replied. I had heard my share of similar alarm calls when trekking in the Tadoba wildlife sanctuary in the Naxalite tracts of the Chandrapur district in Maharashtra, bordering Madhya Pradesh.
We walked noiselessly to the edge of the grass plot in the direction of the alarm calls. The calls intensified in pitch, becoming sharper as we approached. We sighted the langurs in the trees that rose over the thicket beyond the plot. There we stopped and held our breath. The unmistakable smell of a big cat blew our way. We took a few steps forward, freezing on hearing a heavy movement behind the thicket. Then we heard it again, and a short growl. The alarm calls grew more urgent, giving away the predator. I felt the first signs of anxiety. We were unarmed, not even a stick to defend with. Neither of us moved for several minutes. “Lets go closer,” Philip whispered to me. We inched closer still, barely fifty metres from the animal. It had to be a leopard, I thought. It could not be anything else. We could hear the animal retreating. We waited there until the alarm calls grew fewer before leaving the place. It would’ve been too risky to crash the thicket and surprise the animal. Two weeks later we returned to the sanctuary. We trekked along a stream, then dry, not far from the grass plot of two weeks before and came across pug marks of leopard cubs. Later that day, the RFO, Prakash Salelkar, confirmed that a leopard was raising her family near where we’d passed by earlier in the day. I looked at Philip and said, “Which means we were real close the other day.” Philip smiled.
So when Amol mooted the idea, I thought ‘Here, this is another chance.’ We left for the machan at eleven in the night. Since we hadn’t planned it, we were not carrying blankets. As we approached the grass plot, Philip turned off the ignition and suggested we search for snakes. “What,” I exclaimed. “At eleven-thirty in the night you will search for snakes?” He looked at Amol, and replied, “We stand a good chance of finding one.” By then Amol was sorting out two miner’s lamp setups. “You guys go search for them, I’m not getting off the jeep,” I declared. Amol and Prakash Salelkar had only recently managed to capture a King Cobra, easily over eleven feet long, from a villager's dwelling in Gouliwada, Satpal, in the the sanctuary. Amol told me he was sweating in apprehension during the operation. Both got off alive and eventually released it back in the wilds after people had traveled from far to get a glimpse of the giant snake. India does not have the anti venom needed to treat a King Cobra bite. Philip and Amol strapped the lamps to their heads, leaving their hands free to look for snakes. The jungle was quiet, and very dark.
After a fruitless search lasting over forty minutes we moved along. “Stop,” I cried out a few minutes later. In the headlights I saw in a branch overhanging the path, a moth sitting still on a leaf. It was a Lunar Moth. The tail curved away like the one kids attach to paper kites. We got off. I asked Philip and Amol to train their head lamps on the moth while I took a picture. The moth sat still, undisturbed by the commotion past midnight. I’m fascinated by moths. I get to see several varieties where I stay in Ponda, surrounded by hills and dense vegetation. They're richly patterned, and 'quiet'. Then we drove further, to the machan. It was the smallest (in height) that I’ve come across in my time trekking across India. But it looked solid enough. The steps were easy, unlike those that most machans have, too step and rickety. A baby could climb these, I thought, as we lay down on the wooden floor facing the clearing in the front. The vigil for the leopard lasted late in the night. I cannot recollect when I went to sleep or for that matter, Philip and Amol. I tried shrinking into my shirt as the night got colder. In the distance trucks sounded on the national highway out of Goa, into Belgaum in Karnataka. Then sleep overtook me, and the cold.
On waking up the next morning to the most delightful orchestra of birdcalls I’d heard in a long time, the first thing I did was to check if Philip and Amol were still around and not spirited away by the leopard. They weren’t. The leopard had stayed away. We leaned against the railing and let the jungle charm us no end. Then it was time to leave. I wondered if the Lunar moth was still around. It was close to seven hours since I photographed it. We kept our eyes peeled out for the overhanging branch, driving slowly. “There it is,” I shouted out. It hadn’t moved an inch. We got off. Seeing the moth stopped time for me. It was as if nothing had changed between yesterday and today.
I took more photographs, all along wondering if one could really make time stand still if one stood still enough. Maybe yes. After all, time moves only if you do.
A few months later, the nation turned to television to watch the melodrama telecast by news channels in the wake of a spate of killings attributed to leopards in the vicinity of encroachments in and around the Borivali National Park which measures a meagre 100-odd sq. kms. They took away the leopards instead. Their time had 'moved' even if they hadn't, after all leopards don't vote, but encroachers do. The leopards might've stayed away if they could but there was nowhere to stay away. Their world had shrunk beyond their door-step.