Filming leopards is a tough assignment, not least because the locations they thrive in are rich in adventure. I was filming the documentary Leopards, 21st Century Cats for the BBC, exploring leopard behaviour and ecology in a time when the line between wild spaces and human habitation is rapidly disappearing. We were travelling across India in an attempt to answer why leopards and humans share very different relationships in different locations—while they live in harmony in Bera, Rajasthan, more than a hundred people are killed by leopards each year in Uttarakhand. This was the burning question we were trying to answer in our documentary. The video below is a brief window into the making of what remains one of the most special natural history moments I’ve ever captured on camera.
Bera has a mixed reputation, but I love it so much. From its cold, bleak, dacoit-ridden landscape, to the leopards that thrive in the heart of Rajasthan despite its severe conditions, this village is fascinating. Since wild prey is scarce, the leopards constantly prey on livestock, putting them in conflict with the villagers. And yet, leopards and people have found a path to harmony in Bera. The villagers have learned to be extremely careful with their livestock and the leopards only hunt cattle that has strayed close to their habitat in the hillocks. There are no cases of the big cats coming into the villages to hunt, and not a single incident of human attacks. At a time when leopards were rapidly building a negative reputation, we wanted to show cases of truly balanced co-existence.
Devi Singh, our host, is a man with a thousand leopard stories. His fabled leopardess is Zara, whom he had followed since she was a cub and who responds even now to his calls. In a day and age when contact with the wild is usually via packed safaris and restricted jungle access, it was totally surreal to be able to sit by a hillside at night and have a leopard walk up close to you. We were so close that I could have reached out and touched the animal, but that would have been crossing the line. Zara was still a wild cat, a fierce predator; proximity by no means meant domesticity and I knew I had to respect that.
We knew filming would be difficult because of the secretive nature of these cats, and even though Zara was friendly, she was scared and would only give us fleeting glimpses. What made every sighting more precious was that Zara had two young cubs. The cubs were comfortable in our presence, but it was amazing to see how Zara constantly placed herself between us, very subtly creating a dividing line. To see one leopard is a rarity, but we also occasionally saw the three other leopards who shared the hillock with her, basking in the sun on rocks close by. We got some great shots with the star-light camera, enough to show how relaxed leopards can be in the presence of humans.
Our story was not just about the life of leopards, but also about how they managed to survive amidst humans. The leopards in Rajasthan seemed to be doing well. Even though there wasn’t much prey in the desert, they survived on rodents, birds and livestock. Goats probably made up the biggest chunk of their diet, but the people were quite tolerant and didn’t seem to retaliate. It was very touching to see how the local goatherds, waved away a loss of livestock by acknowledging that these were wild animals and they also needed to eat. It was an almost Buddhist take on co-existence. Such words coming from a poor subsistence farmer never fail to amaze me; people with so little seem to give away so much, and yet those who have more are the ones who have a problem with wild animals. Such generosity and the sheer beauty of the land only deepened my love for Rajasthan.
Akole in Maharashtra was a different world, both for the leopards and me. Over here, leopards lived in sugarcane fields, not by accident but for many generations. For these animals, the patches of sugarcane were home, In fact, most of them had never seen a jungle in their lives. I had to film in a rural set-up where there were plenty of leopards, but they were elusive ghosts.
The leopards in Akole were so shy and unpredictable that we began relying on the anecdotal evidence given by the locals and a lot of luck. We staked out night after night in leopard haunts, with a new toy this time: a thermal camera. The thermal camera is an amazing invention, it creates incredible images in absolute darkness. For the first time, I felt I was on even ground with leopards when it came to seeing in the dark. I had as much chance of spotting them as they did of me, which is not often the case with big cats. Their senses are so sharp that they often spot you first and then choose to let you see them.
The nights at Akole were breathtaking. Despite the bitter cold, the serenity and the sheer beauty of the night sky inevitably soaked into you. I found myself wondering about the future of leopards in India. They are the most adaptable and resilient of the big cats, but they are also seen as the biggest villains. I was convinced by now that half of their population lives outside of protected areas. The survival of these animals totally depends on how people choose to deal with them. In places where leopards and humans don’t live in harmony, the big cats wander into homes and barns and the result is total paranoia. They are captured and released in some distant place, stoned to death and, in extreme cases, even burnt alive. It would be scary to find leopards in one’s home, but if dealt with carefully, the animal can be moved away to a place where both people and animal are safe. Most cases of leopards mauling humans have occurred because the cats were cornered and desperate and acted out of self-defence. I was hoping that our film would show that by nature, leopards are reclusive animals and not the blood-thirsty killers of popular imagination.
It took us three weeks of waiting to see our only leopard in Akole. That moment in the video, when we saw the leopard behave the way it did when in striking distance, made all the hardship and frustration of our schedule worthwhile. I could finally show the world something that might help opinions about leopards. We packed early the next day and left for home. Akole was a great adventure but my thoughts returned to the times in Bera. The serenity of the place and the harmony its people share with wild creatures leaves me longing for a similar attitude towards co-existence in other parts of the country. Back home, I still dream of waking up to the calls of those leopards and watching them in the moonlit hillocks of the desert.
Saravanakumar is a wildlife filmmaker working with channels like the BBC, National Geographic and Discovery. He has shot numerous films, including the award-winning series "Secrets of Wild India". Sara is the founder of Evanescence studios, a film company based in Chennai.