By Shravan Regret Iyer
“Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody dared to cross his path; for he was as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant. But he had a voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree, and a skin softer than dawn…”
That was Rudyard Kipling in 1894, giving full flow to his imagination of a Black Panther in The Jungle Book, in which he presents Bagheera as a wise figure, level-headed and the most intelligent animal in the jungle.
In reality, we don’t know how wise the animal is, but the black panther is certainly one of the most elusive creatures of the forest. Sightings of the animal are rare. And prized. And we don’t know if Kipling ever visited the forests of Karnataka or just put into his stories “nearly everything he knew or heard or dreamed about the Indian Jungle”, as his biographer David Gilmour said.
The big cat, as black as night, has remained mostly hidden in these forests, but are now being increasingly sighted. Just last week, camera traps installed by Forest Department staffers in the Yediyala range of Bandipur National Park revealed a jungle far more teeming with wildlife than forest rangers have deemed so far. The cameras captured not only 110 tigers, other mammals and many rare varieties of birds, it also caught the black panther on the prowl. It’s not the first evidence of the cat in the wild, but it is the first time it has been photographed in the Bandipur forests.
Sightings have also been reported in the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary, where the black panthers are believed to be in good number.
In the recent past, some wildlife enthusiasts, too, have been lucky to sight the animal near the Kabini backwaters in Nagarhole National Park. Sightings have also been reported in the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary, where the black panthers are believed to be in good number. “The joy of sighting a black panther and photographing it is something which can’t be put in words! After a long time.my eyes were wet and I had lived my dream,” posted Druva Deepu on his Facebook timeline in February this year. “It came like a ghost and just disappeared. What we saw running was like there was a shadow which just passed by,” another wildlife photographer Anish Jain wrote.
The black panther of Asia and Africa is actually a leopard with a gene that effects high concentration of melanin, the pigment that gives the skin its dark colour – which is why it’s also called the Indian black leopard; those in America are black Jaguars.
One can imagine, of course, that their survival in the wild is not easy – unlike tigers with their stripes or leopards with their spots that help camouflage them amidst the vegetation, the dark colour of the black panther gives it away easily to its prey.
Worse, when they do catch prey, they often end up having to fight with other big cats over it. A few days ago, a female black panther was found dead in Kotagiri forest range in Tamil Nadu. It had died of starvation and a big wound in the left leg caused by a fight with another big cat.
This story was originally published in Deccan Chronicle May 15, 2016, edition.