On the second day of the world wildlife week, I thought of writing a series of stories on wildlife renting the forests of the state. Some of them are incredible, some imaginary. Well-told wild stories could delight children. This first one is a favourite of my daughters…
The Black Panther.
This is an interesting story of a forest watcher’s encounter with a black panther in the wild, wild west. In the Tamil country, west is the western ghats, one of world’s biodiversity hotspots, is truly an abode of wildlife.
Top Slip is a tourist hotpsot in Anaimalai, literally meaning Elephant Hills, in the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary. It was from here, the British used to roll down teaks that would drift in the rivers and carried to Cochin to be exported to England.
Apart from the elephants, tiger, leopards, and Nilgiri tahr, the state animal, Anaimalai is home to a host of tribes. Anyone visiting the isolated village of malai malasars will think they are in the Dark Continent for these tribals share the facial symmetry of the First Ones.
Of the tribes, Irulas are the most common and mainstreamed. Natarajan is a favourite for wildlife enthusiasts. He is a born birder. When he was a young child, he used to stand below the sky-reaching trees staring at sounds of birds. The tribe thought that he has lost his mind. In fact, he had, in a sense and in essence, lost his body and soul to the wild.
It was up to the greatest birder of the sub-continent, Salim Ali, to discover the birder in the tribal. When Ali visited the sanctuary, he sought the company of someone who knew the habitat well. Natarajan was the chosen one as he knew the season and places where most of the 250 species of birds nested, including the hornbills, the pride of the sanctuary. Ali presented him a binocular. His prized possession till date.
Nataraj went on to be the field guide to nine research scholars tracing the life of reptiles, amphibians, birds, fishes, elephants and big cats. Whenever we were there, he was our guide too. To have him as a guide, there is only one requirement. One should walk non-stop for miles and hours.
One night, when we decided to climb the karian shola, filled with fear, he shared the story of his encounter with black panther and how his elder son saved his life. It was his school going son, Murugan, named after the Hill God, and perhaps the only native of Tamils from the pantheon of gods of the country. In the nearby hill, the child god stood in penance with only his underwear on. He could be one of those primitive tribal shepherd boy performing heroics to save his smallish community and venerated later by saints and poets.
Murugan climbed down the hill in a clattering bus to study in high school at the foothills and took the same bus back home early in the evenings. As he has seen most animals in pictures in the museum nearby his thatched house, Murugan was surprised to see a big black cat wriggling into the bushes at the first bend up hill. He told his father that he had seen a really big, black cat in the dry, thorny bushes.
Overcome by curiosity, Natarajan told his wildlife warden that he is going to keep a watch on the big cat and sought permission from his job as a watcher for few days. From the next day, Natarajan started spending his evenings near the first bend waiting for the big, black cat. On weekends, his elder son will also wait with him till darkness set in. For twenty two days, they had no luck. Only herds of elephants crossed the stretch on a few days. In the second week, a leopard was spotted. In the third week, they saw a tiger and a group of lion tailed macaque. But they had seen them all before. Finally, the father decided to call it quits but the son persisted and persuaded his father to stay put till the fourth weekend.
There they sat, on a stone by the side of the narrow, bartered, winding hilly road, leisurely without any expectation, breathing in the winter wind, when lightning struck on the western sky. And then walked the big, black cat, actually a black panther, lazily from under the silk tree, and, on to the bumpy-grumpy road.
The rattling last bus had climbed uphill half-an-hour ago and the forest was still. The father-son duo could neither believe their luck nor their eyes. They were the first ones to spot a black panther in the history of the sanctuary. The black panther watched both sides of the road, like a school boy trying to cross the road on an evening, and started stretching himself. He looked sleepy but sober and unsuspecting of the human presence.
Before lying himself down on the middle of the tarred road, the panther growled briefly. Watching the black panthers growling could chill ones blood. It can be one of those most frightening sights in the wild. On that tranquil day, the panther’s growling came as a pleasant surprise. It then yawned for what seemed to be an eternity and the big, black cat started sleeping peacefully as the setting sky drizzled down golden drops. With the wild within, the father and son wanted to have a closer look at the rare visitor.
The father and son split up. The father moved up by the side of the road crossing the panther and came back on to the road. The son was on this side of the road. Talking in wild language, both took the sleeping position like the panther on the middle of the road and slowly rolled towards the panther from either side.
``When we were ten feet close on each side, the black panther, smelling different, jumped up from sleep. We were terrified. I asked my son not to move and be still. The panther was not looking at him. I lay there before its eyes in my watcher’s khaki uniform. The big cat slowly stepped towards me growling. My heart stopped for a moment. Holding my breath, I lay there in prayer. When the panther came close to me and started sniffing around my body, my son jumped to his toes and started shouting,’’ a terrified-looking Natarajan told us.
Murugan shouted aloud: ``De, karum chiruthai. Nee enna periya evana? Un vala pidichu thooki adichuruven (hey, black panther. I will take you by your tail and throw you away).’’
``Caught unawares by a strange sound from the other side, the black panther looked confused. Now, I jumped up and shouted: `De puli, enna dhairiyam irundha en kittaye vaal attuve (hey panther, how dare you wag your tail to me). With commanding sounds from both sides, the black panther, sensing danger, vanished into the bushes under the tree in a jiffy.’’
Natarajan and his son walked back to the seven kilometre up the hill singing and dancing in unbridled joy. They had not only seen the big, black cat, but have even terrified it no ends.
Postscript: Try telling this story to your sons and daughters by you playing the role of black panther and them as the father-son duo, you sure will have a great time, especially when the black panther sniffs, they hold the breath, and when it runs for cover into the dark, they can’t stop giggling for a long time and everytime. By the way, when you take them on a trip to Top Slip, do show them the bushes near the silk tree at the first bend and the brilliant white eyes of the big-black cat watching them over. They will be delighted.