Charger growled a warning, a sawing deep guttural sound, enough to raise our hackles and stop us in our tracks. It was dark, scant light from the big lamp held by Devi Singh’s guide cast indistinct shadows. Charger’s powerful head, silhouetted behind a bush was riveted on us, as Zara crossed the path 10 ft ahead, to join him and the cubs behind the bushes.
We had driven back to the base of the hillock – Liloda, home to Charger, Zara and their 3 cubs, after Devi Singh saw some movement indicating they’d come down from the hill to the base scrub area. When we literally stumbled over them.
Liloda – a massive hillock, one of the larger ones of its kind in Bera. 5 or 6 of these big hills rise amongst geometric farms, with huts here and there, home to farmers and their livestock. Leopards in Bera live on these hills, amidst villagers and their livestock. Till date no human attacks have been reported, though the leopards do prey on goats, dogs and chickens every now and then. Of course this leads to a fair bit of anger and frayed tempers, alleviated by an occasional compensation by the forest department.
Leopards are amongst the most adaptable of the big cats, with a known behavior of staying close to human habitations, but with such secrecy so as to escape notice altogether. Bera’s leopards however are unique, in that they live quite openly in and around the villages bordering these hillocks, with none of the stealth and secrecy so typical of their species.
We were staying at Leopard’s Lair, run by Devi Singh, who has made watching these leopards his passion and daily routine for the last 12 years. He had driven us out to Liloda in the evening around 5, and we were lucky to see Zara almost immediately.
A while later Charger emerged on to the rocks and settled down, followed tentatively by the 1st of the cubs. The little one was the very picture of wariness and apprehension as he stepped out. Charger visibly stiffened as junior came up, fixing us with a riveting stare.
This image will stay with me forever, as they froze for a moment, all senses alert, looking at us.
One by one the rest of the cubs came out, a total of 3, settling down after what seemed to have been a long day of sleep after a night of feasting. Zara and Charger had apparently killed a calf a couple of days back.
They relaxed after a while, periodically checking us out, conscious of us.
Cubs will be cubs, loosening up eventually, and started to play with each other. One of them started biting Charger’s ears and tried to get him to join in, but our big guy was in no mood and let junior know!
Dusk gathered. Charger and the cubs, rested and refreshed, disappeared into the inner folds of Liloda. Soon the light faded and we switched on the large portable lamp Devi Singh had brought along. A while later, Zara and Charger emerged on a slab of rock higher up, charging the atmosphere with that strange taut tension when apex predators are about.
Resting, they were shortly joined there by their cubs,
the little one can be seen on the lower left, tentatively peeking out and (below) joining his parents
And then joined by 2 more
That’s Charger looking back towards the cubs, with Zara beside him.
It was an idyllic scene as the pair rested. What makes this pair unique and an outlier in the animal world – a bizarre couple, is the fact that Charger is Zara’s son along with being the father of the cubs and Zara’s mate. We were quite taken aback to hear this from Devi Singh. Incest goes against the basic principle of natural behavior among wild animals, just as in us, as evolution has conditioned us to mix the gene pool and increase genetic diversity, thereby avoiding incest. This genetic diversity ensures better adaptation and survival ability to diseases and adverse conditions. Siblings, parents and their offspring, any group which is related by direct blood lines tend to have similar genes. Now if there’s a defective gene in this pool, there is a high likelihood of it getting passed on in progeny from incestual mating. Therefore all species (apart from ones that divide themselves to reproduce such as amoeba, etc.) mate with partners outside their blood lines to maximize chances of getting genes that counteract defective genes in their blood lines. This increases their chances of them being the ‘fittest’ and forms the basis of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Therefore incest is intuitively avoided by all species for successful continuation of the species.
An excerpt from http://www.thenakedscientists.com on the subject of incest in the animal world:
Question – Inbreeding is a very bad idea from an evolutionary point of view, which leads you to think that powerful mechanisms should have been evolved to limit its occurrence. Humans have created cultural taboos against it, but lacking this possibility how do wild animals do to avoid breeding among close relatives?
Diana – There are a few adaptations. One interesting one is hyenas. Apparently, female hyenas will only breed with males that have been recently born into their group or who have just recently joined it. And male hyenas will only move to new groups of females to breed. So they’ve got a sort of social setup which helps to avoid incest. But, on a more sort of scientific level, lemurs actually use scent. They use pheromones on their naughty bits to detect who is the most closely related to them and who’s the farthest sort of relation. The females who will actually smell the males and decide “he seems perhaps a bit of a close relative. I’m not going to go there.” but I think Chris, isn’t there also something about mice?
Chris – Well, mice are intriguing. The explanation for mice is that the genes which are concerned with smell are found on the same part of the genome as the genes that control how the immune system decorates cells so they can recognise each other. The idea is that if mice smell alike, they probably have a very similar immune system as well. The problem with this is that if you have an immune system that’s too similar, it shows you’re very genetically related and so, if you have your smell system programmed to recognise someone who’s very closely related to you, it means it’s a bad idea to mate with them. People have done experiments: If you take a male mouse and a female mouse, and they’re brother and sister, if you force them and you put them in a caged environment where they haven’t got any choice, then they will mate with each other and have offspring. But if you introduce a second mouse, so you’ve got the mouse’s brother and then another male mouse that’s unrelated, then the female mouse will preferentially mate with the one she’s not related to. And if you introduce the second male mouse after the mouse is already mated and is already pregnant, she can abort the pregnancy and then mate with the new mouse.
So, they are very strongly trying to avoid incest at all cost, it would appear.
Diana – Yeah, that’s interesting. I think it’s probably worth mentioning but sometimes it happens the other way. The ancient Egyptian royal family actually used to promote incest because they thought it was a good thing.
Chris – But were there consequences? Presumably there were.
Diana – There were, and Tutankhamun, of course, famously had a club foot as a result.
So what’s Zara & Charger’s story? Are Lilodia and the surrounding hillocks ‘islands’ with limited corridor connectivity to other wild areas that hold other wild leopard populations, therefore giving rise to inbreeding? Or is a bizarre aberration of nature? Charger’s biological father, a big powerful male is also a resident in the area.
There have been recorded cases in chimpanzees of juvenile males chimps trying to mate with their mothers. Sometimes the female chimp mother lets her male offspring mount her if they’re frightened and want to calm down. But most of the time, females squawk and reject the attempts. Investigating the reason for Zara & Charger’s behavior could lead to a deeper understanding of the dynamics that are playing out in Bera’s population of leopards.
Skirting Liloda and the other immediate hillocks is a railway line on a raised embankment. On the other side of the track begins the Bera ‘forest’ – a dry scrub desert forest. The road to it passes through an archway under the embankment. Next morning, Devi Singh’s son took us into this forest at the crack of dawn.
The moon going down,
as the Sun heralds the day over Bera forest.
The whole forest is dotted with Babool trees and we had to watch out for the sharp thorns as they tugged and tore at our clothes, driving through in the open jeep. At the outset we saw an Indian fox scurrying away in the distance seeing us. A while later a fine specimen of a male Nilgai watched us warily as we passed.
We went on deeper till we reached a pretty remote part of the forest. Devi Singh’s son said that a sloth bear frequented the area and had been seen here quite regularly off late. We got off and explored hoping to find it, but could not detect any signs. We came upon this spot which apparently belonged to a hermit about 300 yrs back, and was regarded as a very holy man in his time.
The small bell hanging from the tree and a makeshift altar below, indicated this pious site was visited by villagers and that the Baba lived on in their minds. It reminded me of another forest, where a 300 yr old kabr of an ancient Pir lies pristine & undisturbed, in the core area of the jungle – in Katerniaghat tiger reserve in UP. This place too had the same quietude and serenity. One could imagine the significance of this undisturbed ‘holy’ spot for local villagers, as it lay undisturbed through centuries, deep within the jungle, protected by wild animals. We came upon an ancient well here and looking down found a most amazing colony of Indian pond frogs!
In another area, chanced upon this Indian fox trying to sleep in a bit of shade, perfectly camouflaged against the dry grass.
A beautiful animal, it let us come quite close, perhaps because it was quite tired after its nocturnal hunting.
It gave a mighty yawn and grimaced,
hint enough for us to leave him alone for his forty winks 🙂
Driving on, Devi Singh’s son took the 1950s 4×4 jeep up into one of the large hillocks that rose in a series of gigantic stone slabs. The jeep despite its age did a remarkable job of climbing and negotiating the steep slopes confidently and we soon found ourselves on top of the hillock. An exhilarating sight of the neighbouring Jawai Bandh reservoir and the surrounding topography greeted us in the light of the early morning.
Singh suddenly snapped my attention back with an urgent whisper -“Leopard”. I turned and there was this stunning big male leopard staring at us!
The thrill of seeing a majestic male wild leopard in such a striking landscape, on top of this massive hillock, was simply heart stopping! No one, (leopard included :)), moved for the next 10-15 seconds. It suddenly ducked and disappeared in a flash, leaving us staring dumbfounded at the spot where it had been. I had to pinch myself and look at the camera shot with trembling hands to reassure myself that what we had seen was true! That’s Devi Singh’s son peering over the edge in the after shock, but though we waited for an hour, there was no further sign of this leopard.
There was a massive hillock opposite to the one we were on (below) and quite a few around, much larger and extensive than Liloda. These hillocks have complex ecosystems supporting an entire world of flora & fauna, riddled with caves, ledges, convenient nooks & crannies, a perfect home to apex predators of these forests – the leopards.
The leopard hills of Bera.
While driving out of this haunting, arid, lesser known forest that’s relatively undisturbed, this sight reminded us of how close humans are jostling up against this unspoilt wilderness and its wild denizens.
This goatherd and his son (observe – engrossed on his mobile, 2 different planets this father & son :)), were herding their flock along the track skirting Liloda, hardly half a km from the leopards there. In the face of this ever pressing march of the human race, in a world where we are slowly but surely squeezing out our planet’s neighbours, Bera stands out uniqely. Leopards co exist, almost cheek by jowl with people, out in the open. While Zara, Charger and their cubs, and the rest of the resident leopards in & around Liloda are far less shy, habituated to human presence, our sighting of the big wild male inside the forest was heartening. It’s good news as it points to the self sufficiency of the ecosystem for now. So while tourists head out in ever increasing numbers to see the stars of Bera – Zara & Charger, there is another world out there. Just beyond the railway line, there lies a relatively unexplored forest in which leopards, foxes, bears and many other desert fauna, birds & flora thrive. Where one can still experience the magic of seeing this powerful feline, in its habitat of arid wilderness.
In the leopard hills of Bera.