01 January 1970

On A Predator’s Trail: When A Photojournalist Joined A Wildlife Team Searching For Leopards In Srinagar

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On A Predator’s Trail: When A Photojournalist Joined A Wildlife Team Searching For Leopards In Srinagar

Photojournalist Umer Asif recalls the time he was embedded with a team of wildlife officials who were on the trail of elusive leopards in Jammu and Kashmir’s Srinagar. He notes that efforts to capture leopards resembled an encounter site with officials armed with tranquilizer guns and binoculars.

Umer Asif recalls the time he embedded with wildlife officials in pursuit of leopards in Srinagar
Umer Asif recalls the time he embedded with wildlife officials in pursuit of leopards in Srinagar Getty Images

There was panic in the uptown area of Srinagar as people reported that they had seen leopards roaming around. The Department of Wildlife deployed its trained personnel to rescue the leopard. I also decided to join the search team for not just visuals of the live rescue of the apex predator but also to have the experience of living with leopards. That was my bait.

Though it was not easy to convince the Wildlife Department to allow me to get embedded with their wildlife rescue teams, they eventually allowed me after I agreed to follow their guidelines.

On February 26, as per the plan, I called wildlife officials to know the exact location of the search team. They told me that they were in the Wanbal area of Srinagar. But when they came to know that I was riding a scooter, they advised me to return as I was vulnerable to the attack. For me, it was ‘dar kay aagay jeet hai...yeh dil kahan manta’ (victory is there beyond fear, how could my heart accept that?)  and I somehow managed to reach the location.

They had laid a cage to trap leopards. They had divided themselves into four teams of four members. Each team had two tranquillizer guns, one binocular, and a torch. I saw a man who was under a tarpaulin waiting with his fingers on the trigger of his tranquillizer gun. The situation seemed tense. I thought I was at the encounter site.       

No leopard could be spotted or rescued on my first night and I had to return home without any visuals of the big cat. I was disappointed but not hopeless. The wildlife department had laid three cages to catch the leopard. A senior official showed me some pictures of a camera trap and it was a full-grown female leopard. I talked to locals of the area and they said that leopards were seen roaming in the area. Wildlife officials too admitted that there could be a possibility of more than one leopard as the area is a safe haven for them. They say residents should not have kept rabbits, cats, chickens, and dogs as pets. Interestingly, I didn’t find many stray dogs in the locality. Otherwise, there are packs of dogs everywhere in the city barking at anyone who passes by them. And, at times, they bite those who get frightened. Who says barking dogs seldom bite?

On the second night (February 27), when I reached Wanbal again, I saw one wildlife team having dinner in a newly constructed house. They were invited by the house owner to have dinner there. The locals were frightened. They usually didn’t step out and they only came out to ask about the movement of leopards when they saw the wildlife team to reassure themselves that they might be far away.

Photojournalist Umer Asif documents efforts to capture leopards in Srinagar
Photojournalist Umer Asif documents efforts to capture leopards in Srinagar Credit: Umer Asif

On the third night (February 28), I was chatting with one team member when a lady in a shivering voice shouted from her house that a leopard had leapt through her lawn and perhaps had preyed on a stray dog. The wildlife team rushed towards the direction the lady pointed to.

I also joined the team. There were pugmarks of the leopard. But the wildlife officials said they seemed old. We also saw a dog. The wildlife officials went close to the dog and started examining him but there was no trace of any bite or blood. They let him go. For around an hour, the wildlife teams were trying to locate a leopard that the lady had apparently seen with a dog in mouth. Like soldiers, the wildlife teams searched open fields and under construction houses where no one lived. They entered the lawns of the houses. They checked around trees and I got the impression as if it was a detailed security operation. It was but it was a different kind of operation where the wildlife teams were at great risk trying to rescue a leopard. I remained with them till late evening and then left.

The next day (March 1), I saw a tweet of the same woman calling the wildlife department “the department of kaamchor” — kaamchor means a person who avoids work.  The woman had left her home for two days after the incident due to fear of leopards. This is the reward you get for your work in the age of social media. One tweet can drown your whole night’s hard work. But what can you do? This is life.

On the fourth night, I saw locals sitting and talking about leopards as wildlife teams were on a routine search. One person said the leopard was coming down to pay respect to the local shrine of a revered saint. Others disagreed and said the leopard could not be a divine animal, saying that the divine animal is a “secret of god” and he or she cannot prey on stray dogs. The heated discussion continued. That night too, wildlife teams went in different directions looking for a leopard. I also joined one such team. They searched lane after lane. They searched vast fields with trees all around them. The search continued for days.

Through my experience, I realised that life might be hard for the leopards who have made an entry into human settlements but it is harder for humans. They are terrified even in the municipal areas of Srinagar as they face the constant threat of a leopard attack. Only two years ago, a leopard had killed a four-year-old child after dragging her away when she was playing in the lawn of her house at Ompora, which is not that far from Wanbal. Fear takes over your life and the everyday fear of being attacked by a leopard is not ordinary fear.

(As told to Naseer Ganai.)

Umer Asif is a prominent photojournalist based in Kashmir with vast experience of covering a wide range of subjects, including agrarian crises, wildlife, and human rights issues.)