Chandni – a tragic story
It is a sight I can still envision: there, in Aarey Colony was a slow-moving, yet lissome creature. Whenever we got close to capturing her on camera, the tawny figure, a play of shadow and light, would disappear. True to her name, Chandni was as golden and as ephemeral as the moonlight. Just when we thought we could get a photo of her on our cameras, she would find a way to get past us. In our one and a half years together, we never managed to get a DSLR camera trap image of her. What makes this truly amazing is that though she had the mental stealth of the cautious, intelligent leopard, her injury had left her physically weak.
Ever since we knew Chandni, we had known her to be without her left front paw. At the time we were unsure as to the cause behind her lacking a forepaw. We deduced that she had probably lost it to a snare laid out by humans. Despite her slow-gaited limp, and Darwinian disadvantage, she was still the “fittest”. One would perceive that the injured leopard would be a threat to humans. However, Chandni never harmed humans. Instead, she evolved a careful model of coexistence. Her diet comprised rats, the occasional stray dog and scavenging for food. She had adapted well enough to thrive despite the odd nature of her circumstances. Her problems were manifold: a limp, a home along the cityscape, and unlikely prey.
The miracle of the moonlight, that it shines despite the darkness of the night, was Chandni’s miracle too. She kept healthy, and maneuvered her way around humans. As a mother, she was careful, but never attacked humans. The only time her aggression was incited was when an electrician inadvertently stepped too close to her cub, and she only let out a warning growl.
Time and time again, we had gotten proof that Chandni was a very intelligent and an exceptional leopard. Her astute senses were on display every time we set up housing for our DSLR Camera traps. Chandni would sense changes in her environment and find a detour or method to avoid these elements. We respected her enough to observe distance. Her favorite spot, a big rock, where she would be found regularly at a specific time was as sacrosanct to us as it was to her. We never disturbed her. We merely admired her, as she moved through light and shadow, like an evasive chess piece, never staying long enough to be captured on camera.
In an ironic twist of fate, however, Chandni lost her life to a human snare trap, in March this year. Her hindquarters had gotten caught in a snare and she succumbed to her injuries. Her decomposing body was found nearly two weeks afterwards and her cub went missing. While we cannot be sure as to whether this was a leopard poaching attempt or not (as her claws and skin was still intact), the snares were laid out to capture some animal or the other.
A cloud has masked the moonlight in Aarey Colony. Even in the oddest circumstance, Chandni was able to survive. She did this without getting into any conflict with the neighbouring humans. The only roadblock in her way, that caused her death and her separation from her cub, was this act of hate on part of humans. Chandni’s unfortunate death is indicative of the fact that we must take collective responsibility to co-exist and respect all animal life- especially the lives of creatures as magnificent as Chandni.
(as narrated to Stuti Pachisia)
This article is the fourth in a series documenting Nayan Khanolkar’s ongoing leopard tracking and camera-trapping exercise outside Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Read the next article of this series Living with leopards – conflict or coexistence?