Leopard Diaries: The Rosette in India

A Book by Sanjay Gubbi
Westland, INR 599

Review: Anjana Basu


Sanjay Gubbi writes of the leopard as ‘the rock star of big cats’. The point, as he well knows, is that this rock star loses out in the conservation game in India when it comes to the tiger even though sub species of leopard have been categorised as endangered and the Arabian leopard is, sadly, extinct.  The leopard is everywhere, seen slinking through DehraDun and peeking into hotel rooms, even raiding apartment buildings in Mumbai, not to mention startling pickers in the tea gardens of North Bengal. Like the tiger it faces several issues like habitat loss, poaching, accidents on highways and human intervention in the shape of wires. However, unlike the tiger, the leopard is adaptable and can exist almost anywhere – it has a housecat-like ability to live side by side with humans and, in Mumbai, by living off stray dogs has saved countless people from succumbing to rabies. However, dog lovers are up in arms at this fact because apart from strays leopards go for any kind of dog that happens to be nearby. The only places where leopards cannot be found are in deserts and on snow capped mountain tops – though the snow leopard that skillful ghost can be found in Himalayan heights.

Gubbi, who made headlines by being bitten by a leopard in a Bangalore school when he went to the rescue of panicked children and teachers, has put together his years of tracking leopards and working for the cause of the environment in his Leopard Diaries. That encounter earned him 55 stitches and physiotherapy – he was lucky that he escaped with his life because the leopard was more intent on escape than killing. However, the chilling experience did not deter him as this detailed work proves – in fact he has a chapter describing it towards the end.

Leopard Diaries is organised very logically starting with biology, the cat’s neighbours  and progressing to terrain, habitat, the problems with observing leopards and many more. It is what it calls itself, Gubbi’s note accumulated over the years, and it is a testimonial to his painstaking observation and hard work, not to mention his passion for conservation.

The book covers all kinds of absorbing subjects, including why leopards and other carnivores are important to the environment. He cites the examples of the wolves in Yellowstone National Park that were culled and then had to be reintroduced after grass eaters increased and plant life was affected since the task of seed carrying – which was also part of what the wolves did was affected. Leopards he writes are also effective seed carriers travelling further than monkeys. A leopard that Gubbi  tracked had in fact covered 141 sq kilometres. 

Leopard Diaries is possibly the first deeply researched book on leopards brought out in India and consists of records from Gubbi’s studies in Bannerghatta and other parts of Karnataka. His goal, he writes in the foreword, was to collect the best possible data on leopard ecology and apply the data to leopard conservation. However, the book goes beyond mere data collection because it also includes the naturalist’s diaries and several good yarns from the jungle. It also goes beyond leopards because his camera traps recorded other rare creatures and flora, some of which were believed to be extinct, like a solitary wolf and a plant that had been the food of the dinosaurs but which was still thriving.

With his camera traps Gubbi has spotted sandalwood smugglers, poachers and even elephants who can’t bear cameras – the great beasts destroyed 35 cameras and cost lakhs in equipment, and yes, the occasional leopard which ultimately helped them to identify 601 separate wild cats. His landmark study spanned over nine years and involved walking over many thousands of kilometres, driven by dedication.

Leopards carry out a delicate balancing act so that they can coexist with the bigger members of their families. They choose different spaces if they can, they ensure that they are active at times when tigers are not and they go for smaller prey than tigers normally do so that there is no friction. Leopards can eat almost anything.  Gubbi is admiring of leopard adaptability, writing that this is how the leopard has managed for the most part to stay ahead of the game with no rules for prevention and no precautions.

However Gubbi makes it clear that without the interventions of the powers that be, leopards and wildlife in general will not be able to survive. He dragged himself from a hospital bed – he had been  diagnosed with the rare Guillain-Barre syndrome – to attend a vital meeting of the Forestry Department and through his efforts has added nearly 3,000 square kilometres of forests in Karnataka to the protected area network.

When it comes to man-animal conflict, however, the man who was mauled by a frightened leopard in the Rainbow School in 2016 has no real solution. His feeling is that the answer has to depend on the site and the situation. At one point he debates that higher chicken consumption is one of the reasons for this conflict between humans and leopards but the use is far too complex to be easily solved. He feels that more research on the subject might throw light on the matter, resulting in a better understanding of conflict dynamics. This would possibly cover geographies, climates and seasons and give governments a chance of better insight. 

He also cites the politics between leopard conservationists – a leopard that he had collared was found dead hanging from a tree and the media and various ‘leopard experts’ blamed the collaring for the death. Ultimately it was discovered that the leopard had been poisoned by villagers who were tired of losing their livestock but not before Gubbi’s research and its validity had been questioned. 

Once upon a time Indian tradition protected wildlife and there was a mystic relationship between people and the creatures of the forest. Today Gubbi feels that there is a kind of biophobia and that mobs are only too willing to hunt down animals in a killing frenzy. Of course, one might point out that lynch mobs unleash their fury on people too.

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