By Priya Ranganathan
I jumped over a fallen pillar, taking care not to damage the valuable artefact, and approached his side. He was pointing at a faded print in the dust, barely noticeable but, once noticed, hard to miss.
“Pugmark?” he asked. I squatted on my haunches to better survey the imprint.
“Leopard,” was my response. Both field assistants exchanged a look over my head, but I was too busy photographing the pugmark for my record book. When I stood up, I turned to see two highly nervous young men. “Let’s keep moving. Best not to stay in one place for too long. Stay alert.” I was reluctant to tell them my educated guess – the leopard was very much still present on the hillside. The pugmark, although slightly windblown and made on loose dust, was fresh. Scanning the surroundings (although leopards were typically difficult to spot; they were easier in fact to smell), I led my tiny troupe forward, towards the towering living quarters of the fort.
We soon found our first camera trap. One of my assistants, whose job involved setting up the regular monitoring traps for our office, quickly removed the SD card from the camera and replaced it with a new card, sliding the old card into his waist pouch. I quickly checked that the camera was undamaged and fluffed up the sparse grasses around it to hide the glint of the equipment from nosy tourists or drunkards. Deserted forts in India are a favourite hangout for amorous couples, men seeking a quiet place to lose themselves in alcohol, and tourists who want to take risky selfies. As I looked around, I spotted a couple necking in the shelter of a stone pillar and made a mental note to warn them about carnivores in the premises.
“Madam, come here and see,” my assistant called. I hurried to where he stood, facing the cavernous quarters of kings and queens past, and he pointed into the dark depths of the room. “This is a good place for wildlife. Shall we flash our torches and see if we spot any eyeshine?”
My instincts told me that whatever animal was taking shelter in those rooms, if any, would be highly displeased to be disturbed by flashing torches. I was about to tell my assistant the same when he pulled out a bright torch and took a few steps into the dark interior, flashing it around the walls in a dazzling display of light.
I cursed to myself and took a step towards him when I heard it. A low rumbling sound echoed through the premises. I froze and flung up my arm to get my assistant’s attention. He turned to me, and I motioned to him to come back. The rumbling sound was still persistent, like the beginnings of a landslide on the hills. As I sharpened every sense, my eyes adjusting to the darkness, my nose seeking out familiar or unfamiliar smells, my ears tuned to the rumbling growl, I became aware of two tell-tale signs. One: the sound of a rope lightly thumping a stone. No, not a rope, a tail. Big cats lash their tails side-to-side when agitated, and I had seen enough animals exhibit this behaviour that I knew what I was hearing. I took a step backwards and stopped. There was a strong odour in this cavernous room, the stink of rotten meat. How had I not noticed it before? My senses on heightened alert now, I grabbed my assistant firmly by the arm and began backpedalling. I had no intentions of confronting an angry leopard (all my senses told me the animal inside the queen’s palace was this spotted cat, not the larger tiger) in the dark interiors of Khandar Qila. We stepped into a pool of dappled sunlight, and my second field assistant turned to see our nervous faces.
“What did you find?” he asked anxiously. “The tigress?”
I shook my head and proceeded to describe the odour and sound that were still vivid in my mind. He looked exceedingly worried.
“We should get off this mountain before sunset,” he said, uncorking one of his water bottles and taking a hearty swig of cool clear water. “Leopards hunt at sunset.”
“Idiot, we will be at home long before sunset,” snapped my other assistant. “It’s only morning.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Priya Ranganathan is a researcher with ATREE working on the CHANSE project. She is a geologist by training, with a master’s degree in Landscape Ecology and Conservation Management. Priya is interested in studying the ecosystem services associated with and conservation management of wetlands in India. Apart from adapting to new techniques and hydrological models, she writes popular science articles to promote knowledge about ecology and current environmental issues.