- Vinod Rishi

( The first part of this series was pubished in our ezine of March 2011)

It had been one of the hottest and driest summers to have struck the forest in recent years. The forest was tinder dry. The hot day waned and sun shimmered down the western horizon. In the thickening dusk, tongues of fire leapt up the bank of a nullah, half a mile to the west of where I had seen the leopard family. Someone had set fire to the forest. The evening breeze fanned it; and it quickly gained in strength. In no time at all, the entire forest was on fire. Flames leapt high up into the leafy branches of the tall sal trees. Sparks flew, and bursts of crackling and exploding sounds of twigs and branches filled the air as they caught fire. The forest turned into a red and yellow wall of angry flames. Dark crying silhouettes of the dislodged and frightened roosting birds flitted across the wall of fire. Over the myriad sounds came the death cries of unseen dwellers of the forest.

The fire reached the edge of the forest. Crops were ready for the harvest. We rushed in to beat the fire out. A Forest Patrol arrived from the nearby Range Headquarters and tried to control the fire. But the blaze could not be contained. All that could be achieved was to check its advance at the narrow road that separated the fire from the crops.
The following day saw the forest smoldering in silence; thin wisps and ribbons of smoke arose from among the ashes and the burnt tangle of bushes that had covered the ground a day ago.

It was a heart-rending sight. Scorched skeletons of tall trees stood mourning their dead friends and young ones. In the deathly stillness of the forest, the charred bones and ribs of a small deer stood out parched white against the fire-blackened ground. The forest, which was alive with life and sound a day before, was sad. That evening I was told fire had killed more than a dozen monkeys, half a dozen peacocks, and many other birds that were roosting in the trees near the road. I wondered if the leopard family had also been killed in the fire. The thought was very depressing.

Two days later, a leopard was seen near a village a mile away from the burnt forest. The report in the news paper said people were in panic; the leopard had let loose a reign of terror; and no one ventured out after dusk. To me the lines seemed to be straight out of Jim Corbett’s ‘Man-eating Leopard of Rudrapryag’; the tale of a leopard that operated a hundred years ago, in an area four hours of drive from Dehradun. I visited the village, for it was not far from my house. People were amused: where else would a leopard live, if not in the forest? They asked. The leopard had caused them no harm. I did not find them in panic; they were used to the presence of wild animals in their neighborhood.
That night this patch of forest also was burnt down. The fire had caused extensive damage to the forest. A few days later, there was yet another sighting of a leopard; this time it was four miles away from the spot where a leopard had been last reported. As before, the report described people living in panic and suffering from the reign of terror caused by the leopard in the area. Once again the forest was burnt.

Then all of a sudden leopard sightings stopped; peace returned. But it was a lull before the storm.
The world famous Wildlife Institute of India is just half a mile from my house. The land on which it stands was once a forest, linked with the forest behind my house. Over the years, the links were severed; clusters of houses mushroomed in the spaces along the edge of the forest. A high wall around the Institute now protects a small patch of forest on its estate. A small spring-fed stream flows in it through tall wild grasses, shrubs and trees. It is as a safe heaven for many wild animals of the erstwhile forest; monkeys, hares, jackals, peafowl, jungle fowl, partridges, snakes, tortoises, mongooses live in it; leopards are known to visit it, but they do not stay for long. The beleaguered leopardess arrived with her two cubs, and decided to stay in it for the time being.

The forest she had taken shelter in did not have enough prey in it to feed her family. She started picking up stray dogs and small animals at night from the villages around. One day a dog killed by her was found snagged on the sharp hooks of the boundary wall by the workers in the Institute. It made her presence on the campus known to everyone in the Institute. Now everyone was on the lookout for the leopard. It was not long before she was sighted by the people. She was seen accompanied with her two cubs in the forest behind the students’ hostel.

(Shri Vinod Rishi is IFS – retd. and a Former Additional Director General of Forests (Wildlife), Govt. of India; E-mail:

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