A hi and bye with the Leopard

We were headed to Dehing Patkai National Park in November 2021. The park is around 230 sq.km and is located in the Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts of Assam. In 2004 it was declared as a wildlife sanctuary and just 2 years ago (in 2020), it was upgraded to a national park. The area comprises of lowland rainforests which is home to over 250 species of birds, many mammals and reptiles. Interestingly these swampy forest streams are also one of the only places in the world which is home to the extremely rare and endangered White-winged Wood Duck. We searched for this bird for a few hours, but we were not so lucky. The national park is also regularly frequented by elephants. We had just finished our first leg of morning birding, and were on the road when we saw this truck ahead of us. I noticed that the truck had a big cage and it was carrying a few men. I did not notice anything odd but I was shocked when our driver Bitul causally said to me that the truck ahead has a leopard!!

Image: Little did I notice the leopard inside that cage initially!

We followed the truck till the Forest Department (FD) gate and found out that the FD had actually trapped a leopard that had strayed into the tea estates. It was caught and scheduled to be released immediately inside the forest.

Image: We got to see first hand a glimpse of a wild leopard so close. It was unnerving … the animal had injured itself in the face (see the pink patch) by hitting itself against the bars of the cage.

Villagers and other locals crowded around to get a look at the leopard. But within a few minutes, the FD was swift with their next round of action: Releasing the leopard into the wild. Keeping the leopard in the cage would cause more stress to the animal.

We watched in awe as the FD worked tirelessly (with the help of some locals) who help set up the release site. It took about 30 mins for the truck to be taken deep into the jungle. There was a clearing inside which I assume was the usual ‘release site’. We and other onlookers were allowed to watch from far so long as we stayed inside the car. We saw some young boys wedge their mobiles phones on a V-shaped stick with the intent of recording the release from the cage side. Once there, they positioned their cell phones so as to get a face first view of the leopard when it would dart out of the cage. Once all the men had cleared out, the guard positioned himself on top of the cage by placing an asbestos sheet over the cage. This way, the leopard will not be able to see them if they are walking above. The idea was to open the cage and distract the leopard with a long branch with lots of leaves. The movement of the leaves would make the leopard leap out of the now-open cage.

But this plan was easier said than done. The whole exercise was tricky and hats off to the brave FD guard who carefully executed the plan. After all, it can be unnerving to handle a wild leopard who was stressed and visibly aggressive. We watched as the guard nervously tried opening the cage whilst moving the branches. 10 tense minutes later, we witnessed this….

Video: Here is the final moment. Watch closely as the leopard barely makes a one second jump and disappears into the thicket.

What an experience this was!!

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My name is Adithi Muralidhar. I am a nature enthusiast based in Mumbai, India.

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