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Romancing the Black Panther – Rohini Nilekani with Usha KR

Climate & Biodiversity | Dec 13, 2020

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani in conversation with Usha KR about conservation, our connection with the environment, and her fascination with the black panther of Kabini. This was held as part of BIC’s Bangalore Literature Festival, 2020. 

 

Picture this – we are all in Kabini, waiting for Blacky, the panther of the forest. We are holding our breaths. He is just next to us behind the lantana bushes or maybe in that ficus nearby. I can almost feel him and so can the langurs and the chital. Their continuous alarm calls reverberate through the forest. The morning mists have cleared but our human eyes can see nothing, no shadows, no movement at all; nor can the super lenses of all the photographers and array of modern Canons on a hair trigger ready to shoot. Cut. We have to leave this story unfinished again. It is 9:11 AM, and we have to get to the gate by 9:30 AM at the latest or the poor safari jeep driver can lose his license for several days. So the photographers pack up their expensive cameras and the tourists grumble, “Sha! Almost, almost.” Frustratingly, this pattern has repeated itself for me several times, especially in the past few months.

Just Another Leopard? 

Through 2020, this year of the virus, I have often escaped the forlorn city of Bengaluru and lodged myself in Kabini, my favorite part of the Nagarhole forest in Southwestern Karnataka. Even though I appreciate every inch of the forest, from the spider, the ant, and the jackal, to the trees and the water bodies, and all the creatures in between, there is one animal that I very much want to find. He is the fabled Blacky or ‘Kariya’ as he is locally called, the melanistic leopard who has lived in the tourist zone of Kabini for the past six years. This black panther has been the focus of numerous viral photographs, documentaries, and articles. Arguably, he is the world’s most famous black panther. People come from all around the world to see him. Often, they return without a glimpse, but when they do see him, their “Oohs” and “Aahs” and their photographs only serve to add to the mystery and glamour around this elusive creature. Quite objectively, he’s a beautiful animal. He’s perfectly imperfect, evenly black with magnificent yellow eyes and a sleek muscled body. When found paired with a normal female leopard the contrast creates an even more striking image.

Moreover, he is the one black panther in the world who is relatively possible to find as he has a well-documented territory, mercifully overlapping the tourist area of the forest. So it’s no wonder that tourists and photographers flock there to see him. In Kabini, all conversations among strangers are likely to begin with, “Have you seen Blacky?” and then begin the endless stories of how many times and of all the near-misses. But all this hype and hoopla leaves real environmentalists and foresters rather cold. “What’s all the fuss about,” they ask. “It is just another leopard,” they say, shaking their heads at the frenzy on display.

This is true. The black panther is just another big cat in the wild. He’s just another leopard with a melanistic condition that leaves his spots intact but darkens the rest of his coat as well. There are many melanistic leopards in Karnataka alone, so there should be no reason to think of this one as special. And yet I am one of the humble hordes who has fallen under his spell, happily participating in the fantasy. For me, it has been a magical journey thus far. I first heard of this panther in 2015 when my friend and world-renowned wildlife documentary filmmaker and photographer Sandesh Kadur showed me some really stunning images. Till then, the term, “Black panther” for me was more about the radical political movements in the West. But I was strangely drawn to the pictures and started watching out for the animal on the regular safaris that my husband Nandan and I would anyway take to Nagarhole two or three times a year.

Over time, as the fame of the black panther grew, my interest in him began to peak as well. He appeared often enough at safari time to keep people interested, but not often enough to become a routine sighting. All sorts of legends begin to build around him, of his prowess at mating with many leopards and fighting competitors. This peaked in 2019, when Shaaz Bin Jung’s film for National Geographic came out. It came in on the heels of the successful superhero movie, ‘Black Panther’. The documentary was rather cheekily called ‘The Real Black Panther’. Shaaz posted some spectacular shots on social media that of course went viral and throngs of tourists headed to Kabini. By this time, I had been seriously searching for him whenever I could because Blacky was in his prime and seen regularly enough in the public zone for Shaaz and others to get some remarkable sequences of him and his various mates and dueling partners.

However, domestic issues including the very joyful responsibility of helping out with my grandson kept me tied to home territory in those years. Then came 2020. Strangely, the pandemic set me free. My domestic issues were resolved. The lockdown had been lifted. My travel commitments had almost vanished. I was finally in a position to go to the forest more often because I could continue my virtual meetings anywhere. And I used the new freedom to the hilt. This year, I have clocked more than 40 days and nights in Kabini doing dozens of safaris, soaking in the forest with all its amazing flora and fauna. And yes, desperately seeking Blacky, whom I’ve still not seen. I think I’ve become a little notorious in the Kabini Jungle. There are many other photographers, filmmakers, and even tourists who are seen regularly on safari, but I have become a bit of a fixture, a woman in a strange-looking sun hat and a colourful face mask, perpetually doing the rounds in Zone A, since this is where Blacky lives.

I have come to know all the safari Jeep drivers and many of the forest guards and officials as well. I have learned that their opinion of me is a bit divided. Some feel sorry for me, and they often say, “Don’t worry, madam. We’ll show you Blacky soon. This time definitely. Khandita.” Others who have neutrally observed that Blacky never seems to show up when I am on safari worry that I’m a bit of an ill omen as far as this coveted cat is concerned. One cheekily asks me when I’m leaving for Bengaluru so that this panther can come out. Sandesh Kadur’s film crew joked that they can strategize their filming of the panther based on my safari schedule. My little grandson, Tanush, is kinder. Once when I rued, “Maybe Blacky doesn’t like me,” he said, “No, no ami. He’s only playing hide and seek with you.” But the annoying fact is that the data shows that too often, Blacky comes out on the safari just after I have left the forest. This has happened too many times, especially this year. No matter whether I stay for one day, three days or five days, Blacky shows up soon after I am back in Bengaluru.

A Symbol With a Larger Message 

I wonder, why we want the things that we cannot have. We are partly excited by the thrill of the chase but psychologists also say that often, when we want something or someone, we begin to ascribe characteristics of value to it which may not actually be possessed by that object of interest. I consider this as I watch myself be drawn into romancing the black panther who has no clue that any human is remotely interested in him. I looked up one definition of romance. It says it is ‘a quality of or feeling of mystery, excitement and remoteness from everyday life’. I think that’s a great way to describe this adventure that I have undertaken, to find a single unique animal among hundreds of his species in a forest of 625 square kilometers, where tourists are only allowed into 10% of the area for a limited amount of time each day. What are the chances?

Many people say to me, “Oh, it is just a jinx. It will be broken soon. Once you see him, you will see him often.” So, I persevere in joyful pursuit of the presumed pleasure of sighting Blacky. I keep tabs on his comings and goings. I plan my trips to Kabini after much speculation on when he is likely to emerge. People say, “The dark one likes moonless nights.” Others swear he comes out on festivals and full moon nights. I try all options. Results? Nada. With or without Blacky, I still love my forest bathing or shinrin-yoku, as the Japanese call it. The rhythm of my safari visits, day after day, waking up at 5:00 AM, doing my two safaris, squeezing in all those virtual meetings, and having early dinners – I have created a sort of rhythm that becomes like a substitute for happiness itself. Once I’m in the forest, it’s an experience like meditation, of being hyper-aware of the slightest rustle, of being in the present moment for long periods of time. No past, no future.

As Henry David Thoreau urged us centuries ago, “I am trying to find my eternity in each moment.” I am taken up with a sense of wonder, marvelling at something so tangibly bigger than us all and perhaps this is what humanity is desperate for now. Perhaps we have lost our way somewhere, somehow. Alain de Botton, the popular TED speaker, Swiss-born British philosopher, lectures on modern society and its many anxieties. “We have nothing,” he says, “at the centre that is non-human. We are the first society to be living in a world where we don’t worship anything other than ourselves. We think very highly of ourselves. Our heroes are human heroes and that’s a very new situation.” “Most other societies,” he says, “have had right at their centre the worship of something transcendent; a God, a spirit, a natural force, or the universe, whatever it is. That is why we are particularly drawn to nature for an escape from the human ant hill, an escape from our own competition and our own dramas.” Botton’s analysis seems very authentic to me. Unlike our tribal communities in this country, we urban folks like myself have winnowed out our animistic cultures. But this yearning for Blacky definitely has some renewed yearning for the mystical at its very core.

Especially in a year that has made us confront our own mortality and forced us into closeness and isolation, the promise of the open, untamed, and unregulated has been too much of a lure, which brings me to a far more serious question, “How does this particular obsession tie into my broader work on environmental sustainability, biodiversity conservation, and greener livelihoods? Are these two interests at odds?” After all, the idea of biodiversity is quite opposite to the emphasis on any one animal. There’s a strong criticism of people’s devotion to a few flagship species such as the tiger. Some conservationists believe that the excessive attention on these species allow people to ignore all the other species that are as critical, each in their own way, to sustaining the web of life. Urbanites especially, who are often quite deracinated from the wild, may not be aware of the consequences of an imbalanced reaction to a few species or to one particular celebrity animal for that matter. For example, all the tourist Jeeps crowding noisily, their cameras clicking away like gunfire around Blacky or around the beloved tigress Machali of Ranthambore or Tadoba’s famous Maya, do disturb the animals and makes their cubs skittish too.

A narrow focus on some animals can do genuine harm, not just to them, but also to other species or landscapes because the whole system is so intricately interconnected that it eventually may be detrimental even to the species that people claim to love. Some environmentalists are therefore dead against giving human names to wild animals and taking a very anthropocentric approach to conservation. And there is some truth there for us to consider. We have to be very vigilant not to let the symbol become bigger than the message it carries. We have to be careful, especially as tourists, to go into the wild not to extract value alone, but as trustees of the forest’s innate worth. Yet, maybe the love for one kind of animal can also lead people to understand more about how that animal is connected to the food chain and the environment in which it must thrive, and how all that connects back to human well-being as well.

A Lesson in Humility 

Many conservationists themselves have been victims of the emotional attachment to a particular species because it is a very powerful thing, and maybe we humans cannot conserve and cannot renew our ecology without that pull, that undeniable attraction. We can’t seem to feel drawn to ants or cockroaches, so understandably, it must be a charismatic species that becomes the objects of our attention. Perhaps this can be a powerful way to harness a much broader public constituency and to engage local communities who are very critical for conservation. People have been obsessed with all sorts of animals throughout human history. Love, it seems, can have many forms. The innovator, Nikola Tesla, used to love a white pigeon. He said he loved it as a man loves a woman, and he also claimed that the pigeon loved him back. Literature and art have celebrated the possibility of such passion enthusiastically, and many writers have also talked of these practices all over especially in India. Some of the best stories, especially for children, have been about the human love for animals. Think of ‘Black Beauty’, ‘The Yearling’, ‘My Friend Flicka’, and ‘Lassie’. It’s not just domesticated animals that evoke love and passion in books and in movies – there was ‘Free Willy’, ‘King Kong’, ‘Hachiko’, ‘The Black Stallion’, ‘Beethoven’, ‘The War Horse’, ‘Seabiscuit’, etc. There are also stories and movies inspired by real-life heroes who have had a passion for animals like Joy Adamson and Elsa the lioness in ‘Born Free’ and ‘Living Free’; Jane Goodall and her bond with Flint, the chimpanzee, in the film ‘Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees’ and much later in the documentary simply called ‘Jane’.

More recently, there was a Netflix documentary called ‘My Octopus Teacher’, about Craig Foster’s journey of self-learning with a common octopus in the South African kelp forest. I feel similarly – my experience also has allowed me to see Blacky as a kind of a guru in the sense that I have learnt many lessons from him and from my journey chasing him. They are lessons of perseverance, patience, grit, and learning how little we really need in life. I have personally understood what might be the foundations of happiness in the sense that, in the suspension of my normal self, I’ve experienced a complete loss of control. Occasionally, I joked that I feel like a hapless puppet. When Blacky calls, when he comes out, I must go and I have experienced such a loss of control as a kind of a freedom, a kind of a joy. But most of all, it has taught me that my wealth and the power that undeniably goes with it, has been pretty worthless in this case. Blacky has not revealed himself to me no matter what I do. Through this, he has taught me more about humility than all my other teachers combined.

By taking his non-appearances personally, I make myself vulnerable, open, and Blacky entreats me to surrender to a grace not defined in material terms. I’m invited into another realm of possibility. In every sense, of course, it has also exposed my own privilege and my own sense of that privilege. In a pandemic, when most people have had other problems, I have not had to worry about things like the cost of my visits. I can leave at a moment’s notice, my hapless driver in tow. I can reschedule my meetings. I can even change other people’s plans.

Unfortunately, access to the forest in the safari has become an elite privilege. It is expensive and time consuming. Barely a kilometre away from the gate that the forest department controls is a buffer zone, dotted with many hamlets. The little children living there watch us all coming out onto the road. We look so alien, so aspirational, as we take off in our Jeeps while they can only wave to us from the roadside. Sometimes I take storybooks for them, especially this year as they have suffered because of the school closures. They take the books happily, but they plead with me, saying that they also want to go on safari. The villagers have extricated some livelihood opportunities related to tourism, but they themselves cannot get in, to marvel at the forest which they help to conserve. Ironically, the opposite is true of the tribal communities who live even closer to the forest, sometimes inside the forest, and have access to its resources such as honey or gooseberries. They cannot experience other basic conveniences that we take for granted outside the forest, like running water or a choice of cuisine.

All this has forced me to rethink my priorities for my environmental philanthropy. Recently, I signed an MoU with Nagarhole Conservation Foundation to start giving forward to Kabini and its people a small portion of what I have so blessedly received. I feel as though I have been exposed to all the wisdoms locked in all the self-help books in the world all at once, and now I must dedicate myself to internalising those lessons better.

People ask, what happens if and when I meet Blacky at last? The truth is that I do not know. I meet many people in the forest who keep chasing Blacky, no matter how often they have seen him. Maybe my journey will follow their path from ‘ase’ which is hope to ‘nirase’ which is disappointment and back to ‘ase’ again, and then to ‘durase’, which is greed. Kariya may call again and again, and I may respond again and again. But as the classic ‘Charlotte’s Web’ by E. B. White reminds us, “We are constrained by lifespans. Time is draining away on both sides of this equation of no name.” I do hope I can meet my mystery friend soon, but if I do not, I salute him. He has enriched my life beyond measure. I will redouble my efforts to help secure ecosystems that support the diversity of life, especially in India. After all, as Leo Tolstoy put it, “One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken.” This is so true in this year of the pandemic with the zoonotic diseases that we have begun to understand. And why is this even a story worth telling? Because somewhere in it I hope there is the same redeeming quality that describes so much of literature.

There is the sense of a better future because it is so good to know that all of us together  have nurtured a space for a vulnerable animal like Blacky, who has to work so hard to camouflage himself from prey and predator. He has a fighting chance to live out his full life. John Muir, the founder of the US-based conservation NGO, the Sierra Club famously said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” It’s often quoted, but remains my go-to quote always. More than ever, we need to immerse ourselves, in our own way, in the deep mystery of this interconnectedness of all living beings. After all, Blacky, Kariya is only a symbol. We are the possibility. 

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