Being a nature enthusiast, the jungle and observing its inhabitants was my favourite escape. Travelling across the country, visiting one park to the other I have witnessed many beautiful moments. Big cats have always fascinated me, Tiger and Leopards both at the peak of the list. I am blessed to see Tigers at various Tiger Reserves in India but Leopards have been an enigma. My journey as a wildlife photographer started somewhere around 2014. Since then, I have never been lucky to see the spotted cats. They use to maintain their reputation of being elusive and melt in the jungle within seconds. There have been times when I was just few yards apart, but I had never ever seen them. This increased my curiosity to see them and for me, they were the true ghosts of the jungle. Start of this year, I vowed to see a Leopard this year at any cost. Kabini in Karnataka, India is one of the best locations to spot a Leopard and many even say, it is the Land of Leopards. Even at that place, luck was not in service. But I did not give up. A couple of weeks for the year to come to a closure. I wanted to try my luck at a beautiful place which is known for Leopard on hills, JAWAI in Rajasthan, India. I was totally taken aback by the co-existence of this place. It is a perfect example where Leopards and humans live in harmony. We arrived at Jawai on 21st December, 2019 morning. The moment we got down, we had positive vibes that something is going to happen. This was my first time at this place and immediately I fell in Love with it and its people. This place is full of rocky hills and caves in them which were molded by lava millions of years ago. These hills hide the Ghosts that I was after.
Our guide, Yashwant Singh Ranawat met us at our resort. He knows the terrain so well and has a vast knowledge about the Leopards in those hills. After introduction, we had our lunch and decided to venture out to explore the banks of Jawai dam where we can spot Crocodiles basking. On reaching the banks, we saw many fresh pug marks of the Leopards.
We felt the presence of the spotted cat, but could not see. The aura was such that as if it was stalking us. Grey langoors in that area also confirmed us by giving continuous alarm calls. We were excited by their calling and thought it might appear anytime to quench its thirst. Our thoughts were broken when we saw our gypsy ready for our safari and the driver was in a hurry. In curiosity, we asked “why is this hurry?” His reply was, “You guys are lucky. They are out so soon and we are heading there.” My excitement level and my heart beat raced parallely. I was speaking to myself "the time has come and I am going to see my first leopard." Simultaneously even negative thoughts started to creep, "what if the Leopard decides to disappear again as always?" There were mix emotions running through me. Yashwant ji, joined us midway and he took over the driver’s seat and we were heading to a hill. It is called black hill by the locals. On reaching the place, I could only see the irregular cavity patterned granite rocks with cactus as well as other wild plants popping on them and few gaps, holes and small caves. Yashwant ji asked us do you see it. At that instant, my eyes started to scan the entire place with lot of enthusiasm but all I could see was rocky terrains. My friend replied yes, in that cave and immediately I started looking inside those caves but in vain. I still did not see anything. Yashwant ji had a laugh at us and said leave it, I will show you guys and drove the vehicle closer and asked us to see on top of the hill.
The change in gear felt like the acceleration was for my heart-beat and I felt like the time has stopped. There she was sitting up above the hill. Her eyes, her posture, she looked like a Queen. Wow. I couldn’t believe that I was indeed seeing a leopard. It felt like a dream come true. A drop of tear left my eye. I was engulfed in her beauty. The way she sat, reminded me of the famous Lion king posture where Mufasa sits on the pride rock with Simba.
Here simba was missing though. I never expected what was about to happen next. After few minutes, she disappeared. I was extremely happy as I had seen my first leopard in wild. My happiness doubled when I saw her reappear. But this time, there was company, a small head popping out just besides her. I felt as if she knew that I was craving to see a Leopard in wild and decided to give me a complementary gift by having a look at her cub too.
The whole evening we spent with this family. She went inside the den and then the game of hide and seek started. We were patiently waiting outside the den. I was on cloud nine. Few minutes past 4.30 PM, she decided to come out but before doing so, she was looking at us from inside the den. I wanted to freeze that moment in time.
Then she climbed up the hill and disappeared. It was as if mom’s show was over and cub’s show time started. The cub came out and sat right in front of us. He was the show stopper for us. He was bold, cute and his eyes filled with confidence as if he was feeling as the future king. We spent almost an hour photographing him. I think he was enjoying being a model, posing to us.
It was almost 6.15 pm, when mother decided to come down and I was no way prepared to what I was about to witness. She came down and sat right in front of a cave which I took as an opportunity and clicked few pictures. Her intentions at time was very clear which I was not aware of.
Slowly, she was descending and at that time my eyes caught glimpse of a calf standing below the cave having no idea about the incidents that were to unfold. All of a sudden she pounced on that calf. The struggle of life and death started. Calf struggling for its life and leopard struggling to bring down the calf to feed the cub. The shier cries of the calf echoed through the hills, sent chills down our spine. I was both fortunate and unfortunate to be at that place witnessing the circle of life for the first time. Nature can seem to be brutal at times but that is how it is. To hide the onslaught from us, the cover of darkness spread upon giving control to the ghost who like to sweep through the darkness. Light being extremely low, I was unable to click any image, instead shot a video to remember that moment. I still get goose bumps thinking about those 20 minutes.
Next day morning when we reached the place, we saw the Mother Leopard sitting above the rocks like a Queen and the dead calf on the rocks below. The sun was about to rise and she decided to move on. I saw her for the last time that morning. She was my first Leopard in the wild, but she made sure, I can never forget her. Till then Leopards were a ghosts for me. So I decided to make my dream frame where a Leopard does look like a Ghost.