Thursday, January 28, 2010


The shadows were getting longer. The sky, like a lake of clear water which time had dabbed with a brush of blue, was darkening… Suddenly all that was beautiful and serene in the sun-drenched afternoon seemed sinister and dangerous. As I walked along the trail that wound its way around the densely forested hills, the trees seemed to come alive. Their gnarled branches that sheltered those that walked beneath from an angry sun, now seemed possessed by dark spirits as dusk set in. The forest, once alive with the twitter of parakeets and the chatter of langurs, was now quiet. A heavy ominous silence hung over the forest like rain clouds. I was walking alone in the realm of a killer… A langur called out a warning from its perch for the night. I quickened my pace, but stopped oft en to look over my shoulder… God, how far is the car?

Sometime ago, Kuldeep Singh Gurbaksh, a 55-year-old man, was jogging along this forest path in the early hours of the morning. The view must have been spectacular at that hour. The sea of green rising and falling on the wave of hills, the songs of the songbirds, the heady feeling of fresh oxygen and the exhilaration of the climb would’ve made Kuldeep a little light-headed. He may not have noticed the rustle of leaves behind him or the pungent smell of a death until it was too late; until he heard the deep ‘woof ’, saw that flash of mottled gold and black glistening in the morning sun and felt the cold sharp claws tearing in as the jaws of death snuff ed the last breath of life out of him. It was a tragedy that some say was waiting to happen… Singh was killed by a large leopard that still roams this forest.

Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) is one of Mumbai’s secrets. Popular with Mumbaikars of all sorts, from joggers to desperate loggers and on the ‘wrong day’, hordes of devotees that worm their way towards what is locally known as the “kewas” (The Kanheri Caves, an ancient Buddhist relic that sits on top of a hill inside the forest, adorned with gorgeous carvings). Most days of the year though, the caves are empty and are the haunt of leopards. Whenever in Mumbai with a few hours to spare, visit Borivali to partake of this rare jewel in Mumbai’s crown and then you’ll know why Mumbai wants to keep it a secret all to itself. It is incredible that a megapolis like Mumbai is home to this beautiful verdant expanse that is home to more than 35 big cats (including an elusive tiger that had once found its way into the park from the Tungabhadra forests that borders the edge of the park), and a rich variety of flora and fauna. Borivali, more than Bollywood, Tendulkar or Chowpatti, is the reason why the rest of India should envy Mumbai, for it has the most beautiful and exciting lungs of any city in the country.

But I still hadn’t reached my car that was parked at the foot of the caves, in the heart of the park. The park’s beauty and significance notwithstanding, I knew that the park’s leopards had a surly reputation. Kuldeep wasn’t the first, or the last of the killings in and around the park and I knew if I didn’t hurry, I risked being reduced to a similar statistic. After driving to the caves, I parked and followed an evening jogger, Dr Vashisht, a regular for 15 years with a handful of leopard sightings in the period. He believed that in the daylight hours, as long as one stuck to the trail and didn’t intrude into the animal’s territory, one was safe. But now Dr Vashisht had jogged off and I was retracing my steps in the darkening gloom. I saw a hut painted with artistic patterns in white on the walls. I called out and a young man, short and wiry, and reeking of country liquor emerged. A Warli tribal! “Safe to walk?” I asked. He nodded. “Leopards?” “We worship it,” he replied. “Wouldn’t harm us!” But the man-eating? He waved his hand, “not local leopards. Forestwallahs released hungry leopards from outside and the problem started.” He had a point. A problem leopard had once strayed into the Pune area and mauled nine people. Weak and starving, it had strayed into the city in search of food. It died during capture. It only had grass in its stomach. I turned to ask for directions but the man had swayed away…

Ah, head-lights! My concerned driver had come Looking

Back in the backseat, the forest was beautiful again. The lights and shadows danced and I hoped to catch glowing embers of a leopard’s eyes again. SGNP was an indeed a rare oasis, with enough for all who share it… and “all we need is mutual respect and space”, as Dr Vashisht put it, to make the relationship work.


1 comment:

  1. "All animals, except man, know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it".
    Samuel Butler