Close Encounters of the Karia Kind – Rohini Nilekani’s sequel to “Romancing the Black Panther”
After five years of trying to spot the elusive black panther – Karia – of the Kabini forest, Rohini finally finds it. But where? And what happens next?
In Part 2 of the talk ‘Romancing the Black Panther’ Rohini Nilekani completes her story about her quest for the black panther, and how it brings her deeper into the heart of Kabini. A forest that is home to much biodiversity – it is part man-made and part natural, teeming with wildlife beside the gleaming backwaters of the Kabini reservoir.
This paradise calls for eternal vigilance. The global pandemic has taught us just how interconnected we are to the wild world. What better time for us to reflect on how—and how quickly—we can renew our broken relationship with the natural world? Can we go into the forest with curiosity and humility, and can we emerge embracing its grace?
“Please, let him wait on the tree a bit longer,” I prayed, as we made our way to the spot near the Barballe stream in the A Zone of Karnataka’s Kabini forest, where Karia, the world’s most famous black panther had been sighted on safari that morning. For years, I had been on an unsuccessful mission to see the black cat, also known fondly as Blackie. Hope undiminished, I had only just got to Kabini that afternoon with my husband Nandan and a group of rather excited friends who had declared already that it was THEY who would bring me luck this time. But it had been hours since the morning safari. Would the panther stay in one spot that long? My heart was hammering, though I was pretending nonchalance. Would I miss Blackie yet again? Stay, Blackie, stay!
Rarely had four kilometres seemed so far away, as the jeep made its slow and steady way to the far side of the tourist zone. Suddenly, we were there. A clutch of jeeps was at the spot already, the photographers’ long lenses weary with multiple shots of a still silhouette. Where were they looking? Aah! And there it was. The black shape I had been hunting hungrily for so long. Karia was draped on a branch, 30 feet away from our jeep, 30 feet above the ground, a little too far for my aging eyes. But who was I to complain?
Exactly five years after I began my search, and exactly five days after my talk on Romancing the Black Panther at the Bangalore Literature Festival, I finally – finally – had my darshan of the cat I had publicly called a ‘kind of guru’.
Several people have asked me about what that moment was like. It is hard to explain it without being terribly self-conscious. So please, bear with me. When the heart is filled to the brim, it leaks out from the eyes. As I peered through my binoculars at the dark shadow, the lenses were clouded. I had to pull out my wipes.
Then I realized that everyone around was watching me watch Blackie. Of late, I had become a bit of a sorry spectacle, roaming around hungrily in search of Blackie, safari after safari. But there were only friendly, sympathetic faces all around. My cheeks split into the broadest grin, I joined my hands in a namaskar, then waved and put both my thumbs up. Thank you, I whispered to my favorite forest. Thank you, I said to all the well-wishers who had brought me to this point. Dhanyavaad,ji I said to the black cat, who by now had turned his head to gaze down imperiously at us.
It was an unforgettable tableau. Apart from the gentle murmur of the nearby stream, the forest was still under the afternoon sun, and so was Blackie. I could quietly soak him in. And I could observe myself observing him, something the forest had trained me for quite rigorously this past year. It is hard to explain but I felt both shrunken and expanded at the same time. Dissolved into an infinitesimal part of my surroundings, and yet filled out into the forest. Longing had morphed into belonging. I am so grateful that I just got to sit contentedly with Karia for a long while that day! He stayed put on the tree, once in a while looking behind us in the bushes, as though waiting for something.
And later in the evening, I realized whom I had to thank for Karia’s caution.
As the sun slanted and the forest began to cool, who should appear just next to us but the most dominant tiger of the forest – whom Shaaz Jung called Khal in his documentary but whom some of us call Spanner for the eponymous marking on his cheek. With apologies to conservationists and the Forest Department who correctly caution that we should not get carried away by the glamour of some charismatic species and certainly not by the magnetism of a few characters, I must say it was quite a sight to remember.
Spanner below, Blackie above.
In Hindi they say, Jab deta hai, chhappad phaad ke deta hai! The universe was being rather generous on that day.
More importantly, as many veterans had promised, the jinx was well and truly broken. After that first sighting, Blackie graced me with two hat trick appearances, though tantalizingly brief.
Even that changed on March 6th, when we got to witness an extended and epic encounter between Blackie and his long-time adversary, a large leopard named Scarface in the documentary “The Real Black Panther”.
The two contrasting cats had a face-off right out in the open on a tall teak tree that had shed its leaves in Kabini’s dry season, allowing amazed tourists and photographers in a dozen jeeps to witness the sighting of a lifetime.
Weaving boldly between jeeps, Blackie was in a ferocious mood. Carefully judging the height of the tree, he then clambered way up to confront the intruder up close. It was a dangerous move, because Scarface clearly had a position advantage, on the only branch at that elevation.
Though Blackie has no clue that I exist, there I was, admonishing him – “Are you really going to do this? Don’t take such a risk! Remember what Scarface did to you last time.”
Indeed, if Scarface had managed a more powerful swipe, Blackie could have fallen tens of feet to the ground.
But Blackie had something to prove. Once he had demonstrated his determination, Blackie sensibly backed off, to live to fight another day. And my jaw returned to its rightful place. But why had Scarface wandered so far from where he had been seen last, in the backwaters of zone B, right into Blackie’s territory in Zone A?
Ah, right there was the reason, so cleverly camouflaged in the dry shrubbery.
Here was Mist, a small, beautiful blue-green eyed leopard. She had been in the area for a week. A few tourists had seen her in a fight with a pack of wild dogs. She had fought valiantly to save her cub from them. But she had lost the battle and had injured her leg in the bargain. Even now, a week later, the grieving mother was sniffing around and calling, not yet willing to give up hope.
We must not take anthropocentrism too far. We must not arbitrarily attribute human emotions and reasons to wild animals.
Yet feline researchers and ethologists would agree that the female leopard, having lost her cubs, will soon come into oestrus. A powerful instinct is driving the males to make the best of that short window of opportunity for mating with Mist.
And so, this saga will go on. Other male leopards too are moving in. There will be fights, there will be mating. Blackie may add to his many battle scars. We will anxiously watch and hope that he emerges triumphant and healthy from his next rendezvous. We will pray that recessive gene will meet recessive gene and Karia will father a litter of black cubs for the future!
People, and especially my family and friends, often ask me – Ok, now that you have seen Karia, and that too so many times and with such rare displays, is it not enough? Will you stop going to Kabini as often?
The truth is, I too have been curious about that answer. Am I done with my joyful obsession now?
Will the magic fade? Was the idea of Blackie better than the real Blackie? After all, while he looks splendid from a distance, Blackie is not quite so handsome up close. Maybe because he heats up more than other leopards due to his black coat, he drools a lot, creating fang like extensions to his jaws. He is hardly ever found in any good setting for photos. He is capricious, unpredictable. He is both shy and a showoff as exasperated photographers have often told me.
None of it seems to matter. The pull of Blackie remains strong. For me, and for all his fans. He is still the only black panther in the world that people can even hope to see on safari.
And Blackie is already about 9 years old. Leopards in the wild have a lifespan of about 12 years. Little wonder so many of us, almost greedily, want to catch him while we can.
But Blackie is only one part of my yearning for the forest. More than anything, this ‘sort of guru’ has helped channel my mind to keenly observe the forest, its stillness and its changing seasons. I crave to be back, nestled in its silences and its myriad sounds.
I enjoy the diverse beauty at different times of the year, the altered shapes of my favorite trees – the yellow teaks, the axle woods, the bauhinias. I marvel every time at the sight of the white bellied woodpeckers, hammering away at the barks. I still am charmed by the sambar and the chital deer, arguably the most beautiful deer in the world! I love to chance upon a tusker; I feel a new frisson at each sighting of a tiger.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude at the sight of five of them together – which only Kabini can provide, as a most interesting phenomenon is being observed there. The backwater female, a truly wonderful mother, is often seen with three cubs of her new litter, and most unusually, one or the other from her previous litter, who are now three years old! It is quite the Babysitters’ Club and as you can imagine, attracting researchers to the question of how the animals are evolving, in the presence of plentiful food, to cohabit and cooperate in smaller territories.
So, as you can see, Kabini is about much more than Blackie.
If you enter the forest with a humble heart and a scientist’s mind, you can emerge satiated with both new knowledge and renewed wonder. So much research now supports the correlation between forest bathing and human well-being. We need to urgently make sure that more people, and not just the elite, get to experience nature and forests for themselves. I am tempted to read to you a favorite poem by Wendell Berry that beautifully sums up what I feel –
THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS
by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free
What an enabling expression – to be free by just resting in grace.
And truly, Kabini is full of grace. It is a forest that keeps on giving. Now all of us who love this forest and all the forests on which our future depends, must return the favor. There are so many creative ways to support conservation efforts, from right where we live. We have learnt so much from the pandemic about how we need to restore our broken relationship with the wild. What a joyful responsibility we all have now, together, to become true trustees of the wilderness, to seek out the wild not just as consumers of its delights, but as co-creators of a future where we help heal this planet and let the planet heal us back.
I fervently hope everyone can find their own Kabini, in a neighborhood park even, or in a nearby grove or in any green space where humans do not dominate the landscape. I pray everyone can, even for a moment, then feel the visceral connection between the flora, the fauna and our own health and happiness.
And when that one moment grows into many moments, the truism that the journey is the destination becomes more personally real. And maybe, then, we will know there are some stories that never need to end. Namaste and thank you so much for watching.